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

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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Camilla Tua.

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Responsible editor: Christopher J. Koroneos

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Dolci, G., Tua, C., Grosso, M. et al. Life cycle assessment of consumption choices: a comparison between disposable and rechargeable household batteries. Int J Life Cycle Assess 21, 1691–1705 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1134-5

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Keywords

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