The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

, Volume 21, Issue 12, pp 1691–1705 | Cite as

Life cycle assessment of consumption choices: a comparison between disposable and rechargeable household batteries

  • Giovanni Dolci
  • Camilla Tua
  • Mario Grosso
  • Lucia Rigamonti
LCA FOR ENERGY SYSTEMS AND FOOD PRODUCTS

Abstract

Purpose

The demand for household batteries is considerable in the European context with just over five billion placed on the market every year. Although disposable batteries account for the largest market share in Europe, the use of rechargeable batteries is promoted as a less waste generating and a more environmentally friendly practice. A comparative life cycle assessment was therefore carried out to verify this assertion.

Methods

The study compared, with a life cycle perspective, the use of disposable alkaline batteries to that of rechargeable NiMH batteries, considering the AA and AAA sizes. The comparison focused on the factors that were expected to have an higher influence on the results: consumer choices during the purchase for disposable devices (typology of battery pack, selected brand, which affects the production country, and mode of transport of batteries for the purchasing round trip) and during the use phase for rechargeable batteries (number of charge cycles and source of the electricity used for the recharge). The waste generation indicator, 13 midpoint impact indicators on the environment and the human health, and the Cumulative energy demand indicator were calculated in support of the assessment.

Results and discussion

For waste generation, the choice of NiMH rechargeable batteries is highly convenient also with a reduced number of uses. On the contrary, for the environmental indicators and the energy consumption, the picture is less straightforward, being heavily dependent on the number of charge cycles. For the impact categories Acidification, Human toxicity (cancer effects), and Particulate matter, an “inefficient” use of the rechargeable devices (for only 20 charge cycles or less) could cause higher impacts than the employment of disposable batteries. Moreover, for the Ozone depletion, NiMH batteries are hardly environmentally better than alkaline batteries even with 150 recharges.

Conclusions and recommendations

The number of uses of rechargeable batteries plays a key role on their environmental and energy performances. When compared to disposable batteries, a minimum number of 50 charge cycles permits a robust reduction of the potential impacts for all the analyzed indicators excluding the Ozone depletion. Hence, the use of rechargeable batteries should be mostly encouraged for high consumption devices such as cameras, torches, and electronic toys.

Keywords

Alkaline Disposable batteries Household batteries Life cycle assessment Nickel metal hydride Rechargeable batteries 

1 Introduction

Household batteries are electrochemical devices used for powering items such as toys, watches, torches, and cameras. Excluding battery packs sold with devices like mobile phones, computers, or power tools, just over five billion household batteries were placed on the European market in 2009 (European Portable Battery Association, EPBA 2011). Consumers repeatedly buy and discard disposable batteries, also known as primary, that account for more than 90 % of the European market share (EPBA 2014). This behavior presents an environmental and health threat mainly because most of spent portable batteries is currently still incinerated or landfilled instead of being recycled (Sayilgan et al. 2009; EPBA 2014).

Recently, the use of rechargeable batteries has been promoted as a more environmentally friendly practice thanks to the possibility of being reused many times before disposal. To verify this assumption, a life cycle assessment (LCA) comparing disposable and rechargeable household batteries was performed for the Italian context.

Following the entry into force of the European Directive 2006/66/EC on batteries, accumulators, and respective waste, which defined recycling targets for portable batteries (European Parliament and Council 2006), some studies assessed the potential environmental impacts of alternative end of life treatments for household batteries (Fisher et al. 2006; Briffaerts et al. 2009; Xará et al. 2014). Other studies analyzed the whole life cycle of disposable (i.e., Olivetti et al. 2011) or rechargeable batteries (Rydh and Karlström 2002). However, to the authors’ knowledge, only two LCA studies compared the use of disposable and rechargeable household batteries. Lankey and McMichael (2000) compared the two typologies of batteries for the USA context mainly using the economic input-output life cycle analysis (EIO-LCA). The environmental burdens of the raw material extraction, the manufacturing, and the use stage were calculated while only a qualitative assessment of the end of life step was done. The study resulted in lower impacts for the rechargeable batteries for the two examined potential impacts (global warming and ozone depletion). A more recent LCA was performed with the aim to verify the environmental benefits of rechargeable household batteries for the Australian context (Parsons 2007). Alkaline disposable batteries were compared to nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries, considering different scenarios of battery management (number of charge cycles, rate of discharge, and shelf life). Based on the Eco-indicator 99 method, rechargeable batteries resulted the best option for the three damage examined categories (Human health, Ecosystem quality, and Resources) even in relatively pessimistic ways of management (for example, 50 charge cycles).

The present study contributes to the existing literature first of all by providing comparative information for the European context. Moreover, the analysis investigates with more attention the influence of consumer behavior on the results. In detail, different consumer choices during purchase for disposable devices (mode of transport to the place of use, type of battery pack, and selected brand) and during the use phase for rechargeable batteries (number of charge cycles and source of the electricity used for the recharge) were taken into account. Finally, the comparison was based on a wider selection of impact categories in the attempt to cover all the potentially relevant environmental issues for the examined product systems.

2 Materials and methods

The study was carried out applying the LCA methodology according to the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards (ISO 2006a, b). This section defines the goal and the scope of the study, followed by the inventory of the analyzed scenarios.

2.1 Goal definition

Disposable and rechargeable household batteries used for powering electric or electronic devices were compared with a life cycle perspective. As numerous sizes are available, the scope of the analysis was restricted to the AA and AAA batteries, which account for the largest market shares in Europe (respectively 59 and 30 % in the year 2009; EPBA 2011). Two specific chemistry typologies were compared: alkaline for the disposable batteries and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) for the rechargeable batteries. Alkaline type largely dominates the European market rather than zinc carbon and lithium types. NiMH batteries have replaced the nickel cadmium typology because of their higher energy density and the absence of toxic cadmium (EPBA 2014; Morioka et al. 2001). As for the geographical scope, the actual Italian context was considered. The first objective of the study was to assess the environmental and energetic benefits associated with the use of AA and AAA NiMH batteries compared to that of alkaline batteries. For both product systems, the study also identified the most important contributions to the potential impacts and how to improve their environmental performances.

2.2 Systems description and analyzed scenarios

This section describes the two alternative systems; the list of the analyzed scenarios for each typology of battery is also reported.

2.2.1 Disposable alkaline battery system

A disposable alkaline battery is made of powdered zinc as negative electrode (anode), a mixture of electrolytic manganese dioxide and graphite as positive electrode (cathode), and a potassium hydroxide solution as electrolyte. The internal structure of the battery includes also a brass nail (anode current collector) and a separator of the electrodes made of cellulose. Components are contained in a nickel-plated steel can covered with an adhesive plastic coat (Linden and Reddy 2002; Fig. S1 of the Electronic Supplementary Material). After the assembly batteries are packaged in blister packs (made of a thermoformed plastic pocket with a cartonboard backing) or cartonboard packages and placed into corrugated cardboard boxes loaded on wooden pallets. Load units are thus transported to the points of sale where batteries are sold to the consumers. Boxes are discarded as commercial waste, while pallets are reused. After purchase, the consumer discards the primary packaging as municipal waste and uses batteries until they are fully discharged. According to the information provided by the COBAT Consortium (COBAT 2014) and EPBA (2014), about 30 % in weight of spent portable batteries sold in Italy is separately collected, sent to a sorting facility and then to a recycling plant located abroad (the collection rate in Italy was 25 % for the year 2011, 27 % for 2012, and 30 % for 2013). The remaining 70 % of devices is discarded with residual waste.

For both battery sizes (AA and AAA), some scenarios were defined based on the consumer behavior during purchase: the mode of transport to the use place, the selected packaging typology and brand (Table 1). For the transportation, the use of a car or, alternatively, a walking trip was considered. For the primary packaging, different typologies were taken into account: small (containing 4 or 6 batteries), medium (8–10 batteries), and big (more than 12 batteries).
Table 1

Scenarios for alkaline disposable batteries

Scenario

Size

Use of a car for the purchase

Primary packaging typology

Alkaline 4AA

AA

No

Small

Alkaline 8AA

Medium

Alkaline 16AA

Big

Alkaline 4AA, car

Yes

Small

Alkaline 8AA, car

Medium

Alkaline 16AA, car

Big

Alkaline 4AAA

AAA

No

Small

Alkaline 8AAA

Medium

Alkaline 16AAA

Big

Alkaline 4AAA, car

Yes

Small

Alkaline 8AAA, car

Medium

Alkaline 16AAA, car

Big

Depending on the brand, alkaline batteries for the Italian market are assembled in Belgium, Germany, China, Singapore, and the USA, but no data about the actual market share are available. For each scenario, a share for the different manufacturing countries based on a market survey in 15 points of sale (supermarkets and consumer electronics retailers) was firstly considered (Table S1 of the Electronic Supplementary Material). The influence of each origin on the results was then investigated in a sensitivity analysis (Sect. 2.6).

2.2.2 Rechargeable NiMH battery system

The main components of a NiMH rechargeable battery are a nickel compound as cathode, an anode made of a metal alloy (generally a rare earth alloy based on lanthanum and nickel), a potassium hydroxide solution as electrolyte, and a separator made of a porous polypropylene membrane. Internal components are contained in a steel can covered with an adhesive plastic coat (Linden and Reddy 2002; Fig. S2).

After their manufacturing, batteries are packaged in blisters and distributed to the points of sale as described for the alkaline type. After purchase, during the use phase, NiMH batteries are recharged with an electric charger for a certain number of times before being discarded. As for alkaline batteries, about 30 % of NiMH devices is collected separately and sent to recycling. The remaining 70 % is discarded with residual waste.

For both battery sizes, different scenarios were defined based on the number of charge-discharge cycles during the use phase (Table 2). This parameter ranges from 20 (a reasonable minimum) to 150, on the assumption that a NiMH battery does not decline significantly in capacity until 100–200 recharges. Batteries were assumed to be recharged with electrical energy produced according to the Italian mix. The use of 100 % renewable energy was then explored in a sensitivity analysis (Sect. 2.6).
Table 2

Scenarios for NiMH rechargeable batteries

Scenario

Size

Use of a car for the purchase

Primary packaging typology

Number of charge cycles

NiMH AA, 20 cycles

AA

Yes

Small

20

NiMH AA, 50 cycles

50

NiMH AA, 80 cycles

80

NiMH AA, 150 cycles

150

NiMH AAA, 20 cycles

AAA

Yes

Small

20

NiMH AAA, 50 cycles

50

NiMH AAA, 80 cycles

80

NiMH AAA, 150 cycles

150

All the scenarios included the use of a car for the purchase, which is the most common situation. Unlike alkaline batteries, the influence of the car transportation was not investigated. As rechargeable batteries are reused several times, the purchasing round trip by car was supposed to give a marginal contribution to the potential environmental impacts (results of the contribution analysis supported this hypothesis; see Figs. 4 and 5). Moreover, only the purchase of small packages (two to four batteries) was considered because this is the sole typology available on the market. Finally, with respect to the manufacturing country, rechargeable batteries are assembled in China or Japan. For each size, a share for the two countries was established following a survey in 15 points of sale (48 % China, 52 % Japan for the AA size and 59 % China, 41 % Japan for AAA). Contrary to alkaline batteries, the influence of each origin on the results was not discussed because it was observed that it did not cause significant impact changes.

2.3 Functional unit

The function of the two alternative systems is the supply of electrical energy to portable devices powered with AA and AAA batteries. Disposable and rechargeable batteries are not energetically equivalent because the latter has an average nominal capacity and an operating voltage lower than the former (Table 3). Thus, a consistent comparison cannot be based on one single battery, but an equivalent supply of energy must be considered. The chosen functional unit was “the supply of 1 Wh of electrical energy with a household battery.” In more practical terms, 1 Wh of energy allows 1-h use of a device whose power is 1 W, irrespective of the battery type (disposable or rechargeable). The difference between the two systems is the reference flow, that is, the amount of batteries required to supply 1 Wh (see Table 3).
Table 3

Energetic features of alkaline and NiMH batteries (AA and AAA sizes)

Size

Technical feature

Alkaline disposable battery

NiMH rechargeable battery

AA

Average nominal capacity [Ah]a

2.45

1.91

Operating voltage [V]

1.5

1.2

Average energy provided by one use [Wh = Ah × V]

3.68

2.29

Reference flowb

0.27

0.44

AAA

Average nominal capacity [Ah]a

1.12

0.81

Operating voltage [V]

1.5

1.2

Average energy provided by one use [Wh = Ah × V]

1.68

0.97

Reference flowb

0.60

1.03

aFor alkaline disposable batteries, no public data about the nominal capacity are disclosed by producers. The average nominal capacity is that reported in the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) specifications (Batteryholders 2007, 2009). For NiMH batteries, the nominal capacity of the devices found on the Italian market ranges from 0.7 to 1 Ah for the AAA size and from 1.3 to 2.6 Ah for the AA batteries. The value indicated is the average weighed on the number of devices of each capacity found in the 15 examined points of sale

bEqual to the number of batteries that supply 1 Wh of energy

2.4 System boundary

For each battery type, the system boundary (Fig. 1) included first of all the extraction and the processing of raw materials, their transportation to the battery manufacturing plant, and the assembly process. The packaging production and the transportation of packaged batteries to the points of sale were considered as well. The system boundary also included the consumer purchasing round trip whenever performed by car. Finally, the end of life treatments of batteries and packages were taken into account. Only for NiMH batteries, the life cycle of the charger and the use of electricity for the charging process were considered. The life cycle of capital goods was included only for background processes.
Fig. 1

Main processes included in the system boundary for the analyzed systems

2.5 Impact categories and characterization methods

The mass of waste generated per functional unit was calculated as the first indicator. It included the spent battery, primary and transport packages used for the battery distribution, and the charger (for rechargeable batteries). Thirteen impact categories were then considered to take into account the widest range of environmental issues potentially connected to the examined systems: Climate change, Ozone depletion, Photochemical ozone formation, Acidification, Eutrophication (terrestrial, freshwater, and marine), Freshwater ecotoxicity, Human toxicity (cancer effects and noncancer effects), Particulate matter, Water resource depletion, and Mineral and fossil resource depletion. The respective indicators were calculated, at the midpoint level, by using the characterization models recommended by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (European Commission 2013). Only for the Mineral and fossil resource depletion category, the characterization factors based on “ultimate reserves” of resources (Van Oers et al. 2002) were used instead of the recommended factors calculated as a function of “base reserves” of resources. Their use was deemed more appropriate since no uncertainties associated with considerations on technical and economic availability of resources are introduced. Finally, in order to evaluate the energetic performance of the examined systems, the Cumulative energy demand (CED) indicator was also calculated (Hischier et al. 2010). The SimaPro software (version 8.0.4) supported the data processing.

2.6 Sensitivity analysis

For the disposable alkaline batteries, an average mix of the production countries based on the market survey was initially assumed in all the analyzed scenarios (Table S1). A sensitivity analysis was then performed considering each manufacturing plant location (Belgium, Germany, Singapore, USA, and China). The plant location mainly influences the electricity mix, the distance, and the way of transportation between the plant and Italy. The results related to Belgium and Germany were unified as Europe because they are neighboring countries with a quite similar electricity mix.

For the NiMH rechargeable batteries, the use of 100 % renewable energy during the charging process was explored. In particular, the photovoltaic energy use was considered because it has been rapidly increasing in Italy, especially in the residential sector. The Italian “Gestore dei Servizi Energetici” (GSE 2014) indicates that, in the year 2013, there were 591,000 photovoltaic power plants in Italy with a total power of 18 GW.

2.7 Life cycle inventory of scenarios

In this section, a description of the approach, assumptions, and main primary and literature data used for modeling the processes is provided. Inventory data of the ecoinvent database (versions 2.2 and 3.1) were also used in support of the analysis.

2.7.1 Battery life cycle

For the life cycle of batteries, the following processes were considered:
  • The extraction and processing of raw materials

  • The transportation of raw materials from the supplier to the battery manufacturing plant

  • The battery assembly process (energy and material consumptions and emissions)

  • The use phase including the charging process and the charger life cycle only for rechargeable batteries (these stages are detailed in Sects 2.7.5 and 2.7.6)

  • The treatment of spent batteries

Disposable alkaline batteries

For each size, the average mass of the battery per functional unit was firstly identified (6.3 g/Wh for the AA size and 6.7 g/Wh for the AAA). These values were calculated by weighing 35 items, with an average weight of 23.3 g for the AA size and 11.2 g for the AAA, and by considering the average energy provided by one battery (Table 3).

To model the battery production, the single components with their respective materials and weight ratio were identified (Table 4), based on technical datasheets and literature studies (de Souza et al. 2001; Gasper et al. 2013; Linden and Reddy 2002; Olivetti et al. 2011). According to these, the chemical composition was assumed the same for AA and AAA sizes. Among the main materials, electrolytic manganese dioxide and powdered zinc were assumed to be produced only from virgin raw materials, considering the high purity required and the lack of more detailed information. The steel can was instead considered to be produced for 30 % from recycled material, according to the world average production (World Steel Association 2014).
Table 4

Components of alkaline AA and AAA batteries

Battery component

Material

Amount (%)

Cathode

Electrolytic manganese dioxide

37

Graphite

4

Anode

Powdered zinc

17

Zinc oxide

1

Gelling agent (starch)

1

Electrode separator

Cellulose

1.5

Electrolyte

Potassium hydroxide solution (35 %wt)

11

Anode current collector

Brass

2.5

Can + plastic coat

Nickel-plated steel

22

Polyvinyl chloride

1.5

Plastic cap

Nylon

1.5

For the transportation to the battery manufacturing plant, standard land and sea transport distances were considered for all the materials but manganese dioxide and zinc (ecoinvent centre 2014). For manganese dioxide, a specific distance for each battery origin was calculated because it has the highest weight share on the battery and there are only few producers in the world (located in China, Japan, Greece, USA, and South Africa), according to the US International Trade Commission (2003). Zinc was assumed to be extracted and processed in China, USA, and Ireland according to Gozzetti (2014a).

For the assembly process, water, fuel and electricity consumptions, air emissions, and the treatment of solid and liquid residues were considered. Specific data provided by Olivetti et al. (2011) were used. The production of electricity was modeled according to the specific mix of each manufacturing country (Dones et al. 2007; The Shift Project Data Portal 2014).

For the end of life treatment, as indicated in Sect. 2.2.1, 30 % of spent batteries was assumed to be recycled. Consumers deposit exhausted batteries in bins placed in specific locations like drop-off municipal centers, retailers, or schools. As few representative data about the Italian context were available, this stage was not modeled supposing its small contribution to the results. In fact, even if a car is used, the drop-off journey is mainly dedicated to other reasons (for example to go shopping or to take children to school).

The transportation of batteries to a sorting plant, by means of trucks, was then modeled considering an average distance of 100 km (COBAT 2014). The subsequent sorting process consists in the separation of batteries among the different chemistry typologies. As this stage takes place manually, environmental burdens were not accounted for.

Sorted alkaline batteries were then assumed to be sent to a recycling plant in Spain where they are subjected to a hydrometallurgical process (Società Italiana Ambiente Ecologia s.r.l., SIAE 2014). For the transportation from northern Italy to the recycling plant, the average distance based on the plant location was considered (1550 km). As for the recycling process, primary data were not available; therefore, its inventory was derived from Fisher et al. (2006), Sayilgan et al. (2009), and Xará et al. (2014). In particular, the hydrometallurgical process includes the initial battery dismantling in order to separate paper and plastic (sent to incineration), steel (sent to recycling), and the “black mass.” The black mass is further leached by an acid solution to transfer zinc and manganese from the powder to the aqueous solution. Manganese can be sold to the steel industry or used as dye for ceramics and paints; zinc is typically sent to metallurgical industries (de Souza et al. 2001; Gasper et al. 2013). The mentioned steps were modeled including in the inventory the consumption of electricity, chemicals, and water, as well as air and water emissions.

Beyond treating spent batteries, the recycling process allows for the production of secondary materials (zinc, manganese, and steel). In the LCA modeling, instead of using allocation, the authors identified which products are replaced on the market by the recovered materials and they included their replacement in the model. This methodology is called “substitution by system expansion” or “avoided burden method” (Finnveden et al. 2009). In detail, the avoided extraction and processing of zinc and manganese and the avoided production of primary steel were accounted for.

Batteries discarded with residual waste (70 % of the total) were assumed to be incinerated according to technologies of northern Italy (Rigamonti et al. 2013). The collection phase and the subsequent transportation to the incineration plant were at first considered. The incineration process was then modeled based on the chemical composition of alkaline batteries (Table S2). According to Doka (2009), reagents consumption, air emissions, and the generation of solid residues (bottom and fly ash) were calculated. Bottom ash was assumed to be used as material for road substrate after the recovery of ferrous scraps. Fly ash was considered to be made inert and disposed in salt mines in Germany (Turconi et al. 2011). The energy recovery was also included by applying the “substitution by system expansion,” considering the avoided electricity production through the Italian mix and the avoided thermal energy generation from methane boilers. The calculation was based on the estimated lower heating value of batteries (4 MJ/kg) and on data provided in Rigamonti et al. (2014). Detailed inventory data are reported in Table S3.

Rechargeable NiMH batteries

For each size, primary data on the battery mass (27.2 g/battery for the AA and 12.3 g/battery for the AAA) were acquired considering 28 devices with different nominal capacities. The average mass per functional unit, depending on the number of charge cycles, was then calculated (Table 5).
Table 5

Average mass per functional unit of a NiMH rechargeable AA and AAA battery

Number of charge cycles

20

50

80

150

Mass of a AA battery [g/Wh]

0.60

0.24

0.15

0.08

Mass of a AAA battery [g/Wh]

0.63

0.25

0.16

0.08

The typical structure of a NiMH rechargeable device was identified based on technical datasheets and literature data (Hischier et al. 2007; Linden and Reddy 2002; Morioka et al. 2001; Pietrelli et al. 2005; Sullivan and Gaines 2010; Vassura et al. 2009; Ying et al. 2006). The chemical composition was assumed the same for both sizes (Table 6). Among the main materials, the partial use of recycled scraps was considered only for the steel production, as described for alkaline batteries. For the transportation of the components to the manufacturing plant, specific distances were calculated for nickel, cobalt, rare earth, and zinc, the compounds whose production is concentrated in few geographical areas among those with the higher weight share (Table 6). For the other compounds, standard average land and sea distances were assumed (ecoinvent centre 2014).
Table 6

Components of NiMH AA and AAA batteries

Battery component

Material

Amount (%)

Supplier location

Anode and cathode

Nickel

43.5

50 % Philippines; 50 % Australia (Kuck 2012)

Cobalt

5.5

50 % China; 50 % Democratic Republic of the Congo (Gozzetti 2014b)

Anode

Rare earth (mainly Lanthanum)

11

China (Haxel et al. 2002)

Manganese

1.5

Standard distances (ecoinvent centre 2014)

Polytetrafluoroethylene

0.5

Cathode

Zinc

2

China (Gozzetti 2014a)

Electrode separator

Polypropylene

6

Standard distances (ecoinvent centre 2014)

Acrylic acid

0.5

Can + plastic coat

Steel

21

Polyvinyl chloride

2

Electrolyte

Potassium hydroxide solution (35 %wt)

6.5

For the assembly process, as no specific data were found, the same inventory of alkaline batteries was assumed.

For the end of life treatments, 30 % of spent batteries were assumed to be recycled. The collection and the subsequent sorting were modeled as described for alkaline batteries because they are carried out in the same way. NiMH batteries were then assumed to be transported to France where a pyrometallurgical process takes place (SIAE 2014). The distance based on the plant location was considered (800 km). For the recycling, as primary data were not available, the inventory was derived from Fisher et al. (2006). In the process, NiMH batteries are melted in a static pyrolysis reactor at 500 °C for 16 h. Residues of ferro-nickel alloy are yielded and recycled for steel production, while the slag phase, highly enriched with rare earth oxides, is disposed of or reused as road substrate. The consumptions of fuel, electricity, water, and activated charcoal (used for air emission treatment) were included in the inventory together with air and water emissions of the process. The recycling of ferro-nickel alloy was also included, considering the avoided production of primary steel from iron ore according to the “substitution by system expansion.”

The incineration of the NiMH batteries collected with residual waste (70 %) was modeled as for the alkaline devices. The chemical composition shown in Table S4 and a lower heating value equal to 3 MJ/kg were considered. Table S5 shows detailed inventory data related to the rechargeable battery life cycle.

2.7.2 Packaging life cycle

Alkaline batteries are supplied inside blister or cartonboard packs. The splitting between these two typologies was established with a survey in 15 points of sale. For both battery sizes, 70 % of packages were assumed to be blisters and 30 % made of cartonboard. The average masses of blister and cartonboard packages were defined by weighing 23 items, considering each typology (small, medium, and big). Since the weighing stage showed that the average mass per functional unit of the primary packaging does not depend on the number of contained batteries, in all the scenarios of alkaline batteries this parameter was assumed the same (Table S6).

NiMH batteries are instead contained only in small blister packs (two to four batteries) whose average mass was defined by weighing ten items (Table S7).

The plastic pocket of the blister packs was assumed to be manufactured by thermoforming virgin PET granules, while the cartonboard component of the blister packs and the cartonboard packages were considered to be mainly produced from secondary pulp.

As regards the end of life, 50 % of primary packaging was assumed to be separately collected, sorted, and recycled. Recycling processes were modeled based on inventory data reported in Rigamonti and Grosso (2009) and Rigamonti et al. (2013): PET is treated to produce secondary granules which replace virgin PET granules; cartonboard is recycled to produce secondary pulp which substitutes virgin thermo-mechanical pulp. The remaining 50 % of primary packaging was assumed to be discarded with residual waste and subsequently incinerated. This process was modeled as described in Sect. 2.7.1 for batteries.

For transport packages, the corrugated cardboard boxes were assumed to be manufactured by using secondary pulp and totally recycled to produce corrugated board base paper after their use.

Wooden EUR-Epal pallets were assumed to be grinded and used for the manufacturing of particle boards, which substitute plywood boards, after 20 transportation cycles (Creazza and Dallari 2007; Rigamonti and Grosso 2009).

2.7.3 Transportation to the points of sale

For the modeling of this stage, the main manufacturing plants were firstly located. Batteries were assumed to be transported from the manufacturing plants to the city of Milan, the most important center of northern Italy. In detail, batteries manufactured in Europe were assumed to be transported by truck (50 %) and by train (50 %). For those manufactured outside Europe, the land transportation from the manufacturing plant to the departure port, the transportation by transoceanic ship and the final land transportation from the arrival port to Milan were considered (land transportations were assumed to be carried out by truck for 50 % and by train for 50 %). The calculated distances are shown, both for alkaline and NiMH batteries, in Table S8.

2.7.4 Transportation from the points of sale to the use place

For the scenarios where a car is used, a 10-km round trip distance was assumed according to Nessi et al. (2012), with each battery package being part of a 20 articles purchase. This assumption came from an educated guess assuming that batteries can be purchased either at supermarkets, where 30 articles are acquired on the average (Nessi et al. 2012) or at consumer electronics retailers, where the number of purchased products is usually lower.

2.7.5 Charger life cycle

The production and the end of life treatment of the NiMH battery charger were modeled based on the two types available on the market: the compact charger, suitable only for AA and AAA sizes, and the universal charger, suitable for all common sizes (AA, AAA, C, D, and 9 V). Based on a survey in 15 points of sale, a 80 % use of the compact charger and a 20 % use of the universal type were considered. A 10-year useful life, with two uses every week, was assumed for both devices. The compact charger was assumed to recharge two batteries at every use, while the universal device four batteries.

The manufacturing considered the production of the main components. For this purpose, one charger for each type was manually disassembled and examined to create an inventory of the employed materials with their respective masses (Table S9).

At the end of their useful life, chargers were assumed to be collected as waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE). According to the current WEEE management in northern Italy (Biganzoli et al. 2015), devices are firstly dismantled and separated in different fractions sent to further treatments (Table S10) or to disposal.

2.7.6 Charging process

For the charging process of NiMH batteries, the consumption of electrical energy, modeled by considering a 77 % charger efficiency (Parsons 2007), resulted equal to 1.3 Wh/functional unit. As a base case, the production of electricity according to the Italian mix (including imports from neighboring countries) and its distribution were modeled with data proposed in Dones et al. (2007). The use of energy produced with a small power photovoltaic grid-connected plant (3-kWp capacity) was considered in the sensitivity analysis. In particular, the stages of construction, installation, operation, and dismantling of the plant were modeled (Dones et al. 2007).

3 Results and discussion

3.1 Waste generation

The waste generation indicator includes the spent battery, all the packaging used for the battery distribution, as well as the charger for rechargeable batteries. Figures 2 and S3 show the results for the compared systems respectively for the AA and the AAA sizes. One single value is reported for alkaline batteries, because the mass per functional unit of the packages was assumed identical for all the scenarios (Sect. 2.7.2). If an AA rechargeable battery is used only once, waste generation is 84.6 % higher compared to a disposable battery. Two uses are required in order to have similar results, with noteworthy improvements starting from ten uses onward (−90.0 % for 20 uses, −95.5 % for 50, −96.9 for 80, and −98.0 % for 150).
Fig. 2

Amount of waste generated per functional unit with the use of NiMH and alkaline AA batteries

For alkaline devices, the contribution analysis reveals that waste generation is mainly due to the spent battery itself: 90.8 % for the AA size and 83.8 % for the AAA.

For NiMH batteries instead, the contributions to waste generation are affected by the number of charge cycles. Considering the AA size (Table S11) for 20 charge cycles, 85.0 % of waste is due to the battery; when increasing to 150 times, the major contribution is still the battery (55.5 %), but the charger contribution rises up to 40.1 %. Very similar results are obtained for the AAA rechargeable batteries (Table S12).

3.2 Life cycle impact assessment results

Tables S13 and S14 report the results of the impact assessment for all the scenarios of the two alternative systems.

As indicated in Table 1, the alkaline batteries scenarios differ in the mode of transport for the purchasing round trip and in the typology of the primary packaging (small, medium, or big). Since the packaging mass per functional unit is not influenced by the typology of the primary packaging (see Sect. 2.7.2), the potential impacts for the alkaline scenarios in which the use of a car is not considered are the same. Scenarios Alkaline 4AA, Alkaline 8AA, Alkaline 16AA for the AA size and Alkaline 4AAA, Alkaline 8AAA, Alkaline 16AAA for the AAA are therefore unified, respectively, as Alkaline AA, no car and Alkaline AAA, no car. On the contrary, the typology of primary packaging affects the impact of the car transportation: if a consumer buys a small pack rather than a medium or a big pack, he theoretically must make more round trips to purchase the same number of batteries.

In the presentation of the results, the potential environmental impacts of the two alternative systems are firstly compared. In this comparison, impact differences lower than 10 % were not considered significant because of LCA uncertainties. An uncertainty range in the results should have been established but this approach was not followed due to the lack of uncertainty information of collected primary data. Table 7 compares the use of NiMH AA batteries with the worst scenario of the AA alkaline batteries (Alkaline 4AA, car scenario), that also reflects the most common situation of purchase in Italy. The use of NiMH batteries is already preferable with 20 charge cycles, for all the environmental indicators excluding Ozone depletion, Acidification, Human toxicity (cancer effects), and Particulate matter. The impact reductions range from 30.7 to 77.7 %. By increasing the number of charge cycles up to 50, only Ozone depletion remains favorable to alkaline batteries, with 150 recharges needed to reach a nearly neutral comparison. With such a high number of recharges, the improvements for all other indicators exceed 76 %. The influence of the car use on the comparison was then explored. When the rechargeable batteries are compared to the best alkaline scenario (Alkaline AA, no car), the impact categories for which the disposable devices are preferable do not change (Table S15).
Table 7

LCA results for Alkaline 4AA, car scenario and impact percent changes with the use of AA NiMH rechargeable batteries

Impact category

Alkaline 4AA, car

Impact percent change (%)

NiMH AA, 20 cycles

NiMH AA, 50 cycles

NiMH AA, 80 cycles

NiMH AA, 150 cycles

Climate change

kg CO2 eq/FU

0.0329

−76.1 %

−88.5 %

−91.6 %

−94.0 %

Ozone depletion

kg CFC-11 eq/FU

2.66E−09

+669.9 %

+210.5 %

+95.6 %

+6.3 %

Photochemical ozone formation

kg NMCOV eq/FU

1.35E−04

−48.9 %

−78.2 %

−85.5 %

−91.2 %

Acidification

molc H+ eq/FU

3.22E−04

+64.1 %

−33.6 %

−58.0 %

−76.9 %

Terrestrial eutrophication

molc N eq/FU

4.33E−04

−62.0 %

−83.5 %

−88.9 %

−93.1 %

Freshwater eutrophication

kg P eq/FU

2.24E−05

−46.7 %

−78.3 %

−86.2 %

−92.3 %

Marine eutrophication

kg N eq/FU

4.18E−05

−65.3 %

−84.8 %

−89.7 %

−93.5 %

Freshwater ecotoxicity

CTUe/FU

4.96

−30.7 %

−72.3 %

−82.7 %

−90.8 %

Human toxicity (cancer effects)

CTUh/FU

8.83E−09

+6.7 %

−56.6 %

−72.5 %

−84.8 %

Human toxicity (noncancer effects)

CTUh/FU

8.05E−08

−76.7 %

−90.8 %

−94.4 %

−97.1 %

Particulate matter

kg PM2.5 eq/FU

2.43E−05

+22.5 %

−49.9 %

−68.0 %

−82.1 %

Water resource depletion

m3 water eq/FU

1.90E−04

−77.5 %

−89.0 %

−91.9 %

−94.1 %

Mineral and fossil resource depletion

kg Sb eq/FU

8.69E−05

−77.7 %

−88.9 %

−91.7 %

−93.8 %

Cumulative energy demand

MJ eq/FU

0.534

−75.9 %

−88.2 %

−91.3 %

−93.7 %

Similar considerations can be applied to the AAA size (Tables 8 and S16). However, unlike AA batteries, rechargeable devices with 150 charge cycles are environmentally preferable also for the Ozone depletion (−21.3 %) compared to disposable batteries in the worst scenario (Table 8).
Table 8

LCA results for Alkaline 4AAA, car scenario and impact percent changes with the use of AAA NiMH rechargeable batteries

Impact category

Alkaline 4AAA, car

Impact percent change (%)

NiMH AAA, 20 cycles

NiMH AAA, 50 cycles

NiMH AAA, 80 cycles

NiMH AAA, 150 cycles

Climate change

kg CO2 eq/FU

0.0424

−77.7 %

−89.4 %

−92.4 %

−94.6 %

Ozone depletion

kg CFC-11 eq/FU

3.85E−09

+470.0 %

+129.9 %

+44.8 %

−21.3 %

Photochemical ozone formation

kg NMCOV eq/FU

1.78E−04

−55.7 %

−81.2 %

−87.5 %

−92.5 %

Acidification

molc H+ eq/FU

3.72E−04

+52.6 %

−38.1 %

−60.8 %

−78.5 %

Terrestrial eutrophication

molc N eq/FU

5.56E−04

−65.7 %

−85.2 %

−90.1 %

−93.9 %

Freshwater eutrophication

kg P eq/FU

2.48E−05

−48.0 %

−78.7 %

−86.4 %

−92.4 %

Marine eutrophication

kg N eq/FU

5.30E−05

−68.4 %

−86.2 %

−90.7 %

−94.2 %

Freshwater ecotoxicity

CTUe/FU

5.28

−30.5 %

−72.2 %

−82.6 %

−90.7 %

Human toxicity (cancer effects)

CTUh/FU

9.80E−09

+2.8 %

−58.2 %

−73.4 %

−85.3 %

Human toxicity (noncancer effects)

CTUh/FU

8.67E−08

−76.5 %

−90.7 %

−94.2 %

−97.0 %

Particulate matter

kg PM2.5 eq/FU

2.82E−05

+14.1 %

−53.3 %

−70.2 %

−83.3 %

Water resource depletion

m3 water eq/FU

2.13E−04

−77.7 %

−89.2 %

−92.0 %

−94.3 %

Mineral and fossil resource depletion

kg Sb eq/FU

1.13E−04

−79.0 %

−89.8 %

−92.5 %

−94.6 %

Cumulative energy demand

MJ eq/FU

0.700

−77.7 %

−89.3 %

−92.3 %

−94.5 %

The contribution analysis shows that among the ten impact indicators for which the use of NiMH batteries is always preferable, two specific trends can be observed. For three impact categories (Freshwater eutrophication, Freshwater ecotoxicity, and Human toxicity with noncancer effects), the battery life cycle is responsible for more than 94 % of the total impact in all the alkaline scenarios and for more than 90 % for NiMH batteries. As an example, Fig. 3 reports the contribution of the main processes to the total impact for the Human toxicity (noncancer effects), considering the AA size.
Fig. 3

Contribution of the main processes to the total impact for the Human toxicity (noncancer effects) considering all the scenarios of the AA size

For the other seven indicators (Climate change, Photochemical ozone formation, Terrestrial and marine eutrophication, Water resource depletion, Mineral and fossil resource depletion, and CED), besides the battery life cycle, other processes play a nonnegligible contribution. For alkaline batteries, when a car is used, the contribution of the transportation to the use place exceeds always 5 % for the AA size and 9 % for the AAA. For example, considering the Climate change (Fig. 4), the contribution of this transport stage is 5 % when a big pack of AA alkaline batteries is purchased (Alkaline 16AA, car scenario) and rises up to 19 % for a small pack (Alkaline 4AA, car). For NiMH batteries, the environmental contribution of the use phase (charging process and charger life cycle) is significant especially for 150 uses, when it always exceeds 25 % for both sizes. Considering the Climate change again (Fig. 4), the use phase contribution ranges from 14 % (20 uses) to 55 % (150 uses).
Fig. 4

Contribution of the main processes to the total impact for the Climate change considering all the scenarios of the AA size

For Ozone depletion, Acidification, Human toxicity (cancer effects), and Particulate matter, the contribution analysis allows to understand the reasons why rechargeable batteries are not always preferable. For Acidification and Particulate matter, after 20 uses, the battery life cycle still has a very relevant impact due to the extraction and the processing of nickel, the component with the major weight share of a NiMH battery. The allocation of this contribution on a longer use phase allows less impacts than alkaline devices starting from 50 uses. For the Human toxicity (cancer effects), NiMH batteries used only for 20 cycles cause higher impacts than alkaline batteries due to the air emissions of their incineration process. Finally, for the Ozone depletion, the impact of rechargeable batteries is mostly related to the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) production, despite its very low amount in the device (less than 0.5 %). Even with 150 charge cycles, the contribution of this process is very important (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Contribution of the main processes to the total impact for the Ozone depletion considering all the scenarios of the AA size

3.3 Results of the sensitivity analysis

As indicated in Sect. 2.6, for alkaline batteries, a sensitivity analysis was performed in order to investigate the influence of the manufacturing plant location on the results. For AA batteries, considering the most common situation of purchase (Alkaline 4AA, car scenario), Table 9 compares the impacts of the alkaline devices with an average origin to those of batteries manufactured in the different countries. The same comparison for the AAA size is shown in Table S17. For both sizes, the main impact variations are observed for China (with an increase of the impacts) and for Europe (reduction of the impacts) for Photochemical ozone formation and Acidification (due to the different electricity mix used in the manufacturing of batteries), for Terrestrial and Marine eutrophication (due to the different ways and distances of battery transportation) and above all for the Particulate matter (due to both reasons). Accordingly, in the comparison between alkaline and NiMH batteries, the main changes are observed for the Particulate matter. Considering for example the AA size, as shown in Table 7, rechargeable batteries for 20 charge cycles (NiMH AA, 20 cycles scenario) are not preferable to disposable devices (Alkaline 4AA, car scenario) with an average origin (+22.5 %). This value rises up to +41.4 % for European batteries and decreases until −7.4 % for Chinese batteries (in this last case, the potential impacts of disposable and rechargeable batteries result comparable).
Table 9

Impact percent changes for the use of AA alkaline batteries (Alkaline 4AA, car scenario) manufactured in the different production countries with respect to that of alkaline batteries with an average origin

Impact category

Alkaline 4AA, car

Average origin

USA

China

Singapore

Europe

Climate change

kg CO2 eq/FU

0.0329

+4.2 %

+6.6 %

+2.2 %

−4.6 %

Ozone depletion

kg CFC-11 eq/FU

2.66E−09

+3.7 %

−3.1 %

+4.8 %

−3.0 %

Photochemical ozone formation

kg NMCOV eq/FU

1.35E−04

+8.9 %

+11.8 %

+4.7 %

−9.1 %

Acidification

molc H+ eq/FU

3.22E−04

+6.1 %

+13.9 %

+4.2 %

−9.0 %

Terrestrial eutrophication

molc N eq/FU

4.33E−04

+10.1 %

+13.4 %

+5.4 %

−10.3 %

Freshwater eutrophication

kg P eq/FU

2.24E−05

+4.3 %

−0.2 %

−2.2 %

+1.0 %

Marine eutrophication

kg N eq/FU

4.18E−05

+9.6 %

+12.5 %

+4.9 %

−9.6 %

Freshwater ecotoxicity

CTUe/FU

4.96

+0.2 %

+0.1 %

−0.1 %

0.0 %

Human toxicity (cancer effects)

CTUh/FU

8.83E−09

+1.7 %

+0.5 %

−0.5 %

0.0 %

Human toxicity (noncancer effects)

CTUh/FU

8.05E−08

+0.5 %

+0.4 %

−0.2 %

0.0 %

Particulate matter

kg PM2.5 eq/FU

2.43E−05

−4.7 %

+32.4 %

+3.5 %

−13.3 %

Water resource depletion

m3 water eq/FU

1.90E−04

+2.0 %

+4.4 %

+2.2 %

−3.5 %

Mineral and fossil resource depletion

kg Sb eq/FU

8.69E−05

+5.3 %

+4.9 %

+2.6 %

−4.5 %

Cumulative energy demand

MJ eq/FU

0.534

+4.2 %

+0.6 %

+0.3 %

−1.1 %

Italic entries indicate the highest impact variations for China and Europe

For NiMH batteries, Tables 10 and S18 (respectively for AA and AAA sizes) compare the use of electricity from electrical grid (Italian mix) to the employ of energy produced by photovoltaic power plants.
Table 10

Impact percent changes for the use of electricity produced by photovoltaic power plants for the charging process of NiMH AA batteries with respect to the employ of electricity from electrical grid (impacts in Table S14)

Impact category

Photovoltaic vs Italian mix

NiMH AA, 20 cycles

NiMH AA, 50 cycles

NiMH AA, 80 cycles

NiMH AA, 150 cycles

Climate change

−8.5 %

−17.6 %

−24.0 %

−33.5 %

Ozone depletion

−0.2 %

−0.6 %

−0.9 %

−1.7 %

Photochemical ozone formation

−2.4 %

−5.6 %

−8.4 %

−13.9 %

Acidification

−0.7 %

−1.8 %

−2.8 %

−5.2 %

Terrestrial eutrophication

−3.5 %

−8.1 %

−12.1 %

−19.4 %

Freshwater eutrophication

−0.9 %

−2.2 %

−3.5 %

−6.3 %

Marine eutrophication

−3.8 %

−8.6 %

−12.7 %

−20.2 %

Freshwater ecotoxicity

0.0 %

0.0 %

+0.1 %

+0.1 %

Human toxicity (cancer effects)

−0.1 %

−0.2 %

−0.3 %

−0.6 %

Human toxicity (noncancer effects)

+0.1 %

+0.4 %

+0.6 %

+1.2 %

Particulate matter

−0.8 %

−2.0 %

−3.1 %

−5.5 %

Water resource depletion

−7.0 %

−14.3 %

−19.3 %

−26.7 %

Mineral and fossil resource depletion

−9.9 %

−19.8 %

−26.4 %

−35.7 %

Cumulative energy demand

−4.7 %

−9.6 %

−13.0 %

−17.9 %

The main impact reductions with photovoltaic energy take place, especially for 150 charge cycles, for Climate change, Photochemical ozone formation, Terrestrial and marine eutrophication, Water resource depletion, Mineral and fossil resource depletion, and CED. Since the use of photovoltaic electricity causes reduced changes for the categories in which rechargeable batteries are not always preferable (Ozone depletion, Acidification, Human toxicity with cancer effects, and Particulate matter), the comparison between alkaline and rechargeable batteries is not significantly affected.

4 Conclusions and recommendations

This study compared, with a life cycle perspective, the use of rechargeable NiMH and disposable alkaline household batteries, focusing on the AA and AAA sizes.

At least two uses of rechargeable batteries are required in order to decrease waste generation with respect to the alkaline devices. In particular, 20 charge cycles allow for a 90 % reduction of waste while for 150 charge cycles the reduction raises up to 98 %. On the other hand, for the environmental impact indicators, the picture is less straightforward, with rechargeable batteries not necessarily advantageous. For some indicators, an “inefficient” use of these devices (for only 20 charge cycles or less) could cause higher impacts than the employ of alkaline batteries even in the worst situation of purchase. This is due to the high impact of NiMH batteries production and end of life treatments that can be compensated only by extending the use phase. Consumers should therefore use NiMH batteries to their full potential or at least for 50 times, which allow for a robust decrease of the potential impacts for all the examined impact categories excluding the Ozone depletion. For this category, also for 150 charge cycles the potential impact of rechargeable batteries is hardly lower than that of disposable devices. An environmental improvement could be obtained with the substitution of the PTFE solution used to produce the anode.

The study also highlighted important aspects related to the use of disposable alkaline batteries that hardly will be replaced by the rechargeable devices for applications involving slow discharge such as wall clocks or TV remote controls. Although most of the impacts are due to the battery life cycle, the consumer choices (contingent use of a car for the purchasing round trip and typology of acquired packaging) can partially affect the performances of the system. A reduction of the impacts is obtained if consumers avoid the use of a car. When this is not possible, the purchase of a big or a medium packaging (comprising more than six batteries) instead of a small pack should be encouraged in order to reduce the number of car travels for the same supply of energy.

Future steps of the research could include in the comparison new types of disposable batteries that start to be available on the market: lithium batteries (with higher lifespan than alkaline typology) and the first example of alkaline batteries composed of 4 % recycled spent batteries by total weight. An economic comparison, including external and internal costs, based on the principles of Societal Life Cycle Costing (Martinez-Sanchez et al. 2015) would be also interesting.

Notes

Acknowledgments

The research was financially supported by the Eureka foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the president Carlo Mazzola and the project manager Francesca Mazzieri. We also thank the COBAT Consortium, the Centro di Coordinamento Nazionale Pile e Accumulatori and the Società Italiana Ambiente Ecologia s.r.l. that provided useful data and information.

Supplementary material

11367_2016_1134_MOESM1_ESM.docx (474 kb)
ESM 1(DOCX 474 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Giovanni Dolci
    • 1
  • Camilla Tua
    • 1
  • Mario Grosso
    • 1
  • Lucia Rigamonti
    • 1
  1. 1.Politecnico di Milano, DICA−Environmental SectionMilanoItaly

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