Why You Should Use Rechargeable Batteries

Eco Friendly BatteriesRechargeable batteries have been frequently described as frugal and environmentally friendly. And to a certain extent they are. But to get the most bang for your buck and actually minimize your environmental impact, you have to know which type of battery is best for different situations.

Types

Batteries release electricity when a chemical reaction inside the battery occurs. Your basic alkaline batteries are single use, the zinc/manganese oxide/potassium hydroxide reaction is not reversible. In rechargeable batteries, running electricity through it reverses the reaction – hence recharging it. There are several different types available. In the past, rechargeable batteries were dominated by NiCad (nickel cadmium), but are now being succeeded by NiMH (nickel metal hydride), its less toxic cousin. Lithium batteries are mainly used in high energy demanding products, such as laptops and cell phones.

Properties

When accessing batteries, there are several factors to consider. Self-discharge rate refers to how quickly a battery losses charge while not in use. Nickel batteries loose charge very quickly, although the low discharge NiMH are better, while lithium and alkaline hold it very well. Capacity describes how much energy a battery hold and can release over time. The low discharge NiMH have a smaller capacity compared to regular NiMH. The number of times a battery can be recharged also varies between types. Rechargeable alkaline can be recharged the least, and loose potential capacity with use. (Other rechargeable batteries will fall off with so many charges, although many NiMH are advertised to last 1000 charge cycles.)

Safety

Single use alkaline batteries can hold most of their charge for years. Which is why the expiration date on those packages is often several years in the future. Unfortunately, even the low discharge NiMH are no where near as good at holding charge over years. So for safety items, such as emergency flashlights or smoke detectors, you will want to use disposable alkaline. The last thing you need in an emergency is a bunch of dead batteries.

Savings

Rechargeable batteries cost 5-15 times more than non-rechargeable. They also require a good charger – cheap charging devices can overheat the batteries, causing them to wear out sooner. Assume an investment of about $20 for four AA batteries plus charger. Thus to break even, you will have to replace $20 worth of regular alkaline batteries over time. (The energy costs of recharging are negligible for these calculations – only pennies.) Additional sets of four will only cost you an extra $7-10, reducing your break even point. Also keep in mind you will need an extra 2-4 batteries sitting around full charged for when you need to change some out.

Some items, like clocks or a TV remote (assuming you are not a 24/7 channel surfer), have very low but long term energy needs. With the high self-discharge rate of NiMH, it is impossible to break even before the rechargeable dies (several years) and it is much more of a hassle. Also, certain devices require a starting voltage of 1.5v, which regular AA alkalines can provide but NiMH AA (1.2v) cannot.

Other devices, such as my cordless mouse and mp3 player are much better candidates for savings with NiMH. My mouse would go through about four regular batteries a year, so within 2 years I come out significantly ahead. I find they work decently in a pinch for my digital camera, but disposable lithium batteries last much longer. (I have had better luck with Energizer brand than Duracell.) The more devices you have that go through batteries regularly and do not sit unused for weeks at a time, the greater your potential savings from rechargeable batteries.

For additional perspectives, check out this savings evaluation for four common devices and this article looking at why rechargeable batteries rarely are cost effective.

Environment

Battery toxicity is an important consideration, but pollution caused by the production and distribution should also be considered. Rechargeable batteries can significantly reduce all of these. Unfortunately, the only major study of the environmental impact of rechargeable vs. disposable batteries was done by Uniross – a manufacturer of rechargeable batteries. They found that rechargeable batteries have “up to 32 times less impact on the environment than disposable batteries.” Of course, minimizing environmental impact depends on choosing the right type for each device.

Proper disposal of any type of battery is essential. If you do not know where you can drop them off for safe recycling, check out Call2Recycle and use the “Drop Off Locator” based on zip code. Also, look over their tips on maximizing the life of your rechareables.

Meatless Monday

Meatless MondayYou might have heard about the Meatless Monday movement, where people eat vegetarian one day of the week. It has a three-fold benefit of saving money, improving your health, and being good for the environment. A rice and bean meal can be both delicious and cheap. Reducing calories derived from animal products is associated with lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and obesity (and of course medical bills are not cheap, so prevention is frugal too). Also, most vegetarian foods use a fraction of the water and energy required to produce meat. Even if you eat out all the time, vegetarian meals are often still cheaper and healthier.

While I do not personally go meatless every Monday, most weeks I cook at least one vegetarian meal. When I first started, I saw a significant decrease in my grocery budget. It is hard to say how much I have saved because I concurrently was working on couponing and stock piling skills too. But it probably accounts for at least a 10-20% reduction in my food spending. I can pick up a 1 lb bag of lentils for a little over a dollar, add some onion and spices, cook until done, toss in some spinach (fresh or frozen), and voila – dinner for under 40¢/serving with very little work. Even if I toss some cheese or feta on top (purchased on sale with a coupon ;) ) and serve with rice or toasted bread, it is still an incredibly inexpensive meal.

Cooking Vegetarian Meals

Mmm . . . vegetarian fajitas!

To get started, check out the Meatless Monday website for some great free recipes. You will find some delicious twists on your basic meals such as lasagna and burritos, as well as recipes for ethnic foods. When I made a vegetarian and a regular lasagna for friends, guess which was gone first – the veggie one, even though only one vegetarian was present.

Learning to cook vegetarian does take some practice. You have to discover how to create savory flavors and richness using vegetables instead of meat. Human taste is incredibly complex and varies person to person, but for the sake of simplicity, the basic tastes can be divided into these categories: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, unami, and possibly fat. When glutamate (a component of many proteins) receptors on the tongue are activated, you taste unami or savory. Tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, avocado, beans, and nuts stimulate these receptors, just like meat, so incorporate them into your vegetarian meals. Also use lots of fresh ingredients and be careful not to overcook produce – that way your dishes will disappear as fast as my lasagna did.

Less Meat

Is dinner not complete without some meat? Try meals which use meat as a side dish or flavoring instead of as the entree. You get some of the delicious flavors and richness, but still consume a mostly plant based diet. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he described eating meat “as a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.”

It took my mother several years to get my dad on board with occasional vegetarian meals. She started with stir fries consisting of mostly vegetables with some tofu and shrimp (or other meat). Even meat based dishes can be made “meat- lite.” For meatloaf I mix equal amounts of ground beef, tofu, and chopped mushrooms, then adding the typical ingredients – dry oatmeal, egg, onion, and seasons – to the mix. I often make 2-3 batches worth and freeze the extra. There are some great cookbooks for making low meat meals. My favorite is Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet. I got so many great ideas from this book and absolutely love the Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara recipe.

Becoming Flexitarian

Taking Meatless Mondays a step further to a flexitarian diet nets you even greater benefits, while still avoiding the health issues associated with nutritionally incomplete vegetarian diet. (It is possible to have a healthy, complete vegetarian diet, but you need to know what foods you can get various vitamins and amino acids from.) Being flexitarian has rapidly grown in popularity – there is even a large facebook group dedicated to it and blogs filled with low meat and dairy recipes. This is also part of the diet advocated by Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Whether you eat meat only occasionally or use only a small amount of meat in most meals, you can be a flexitarian