Batteries: Charging a Dirty World

The topic of batteries is a challenging one. They can be rechargeable, hugely useful and underpin the current movement towards electric cars. However, like most things in life, there's pros and cons to using them. 

Batteries are used in so many devices it is pretty much impossible to avoid them in modern life. They are in cars, mobile phones, TV remotes, laptops and pretty much every portable electric device. They store chemical energy and when used convert it to electrical energy which is of huge importance. Without them, life as we know it wouldn't exist. They also underpin the movement towards renewable energy. According to a World Economic Forum report [1]:

"... batteries could enable 30% of the required reductions in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, provide access to electricity to 600 million people who currently have no access, and create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world."

As such, the use of batteries will only increase with time. In this post, we will focus on general lithium batteries as these are becoming the most widely used for renewable energy applications such as electric vehicles due to their low self-discharge (long lifespan) and light weight. 

According to Ethical Consumer [2], tax avoidance, conflict minerals, undertaking operations in oppressive regimes and environmental destruction are rife within well-known battery brands.

There is also serious concern being raised by Indigenous communities living in areas of lithium mining whom are receiving less than their fair share in the benefits from land operations. Water consumption from these operations is reducing access for local communities in already water-scarse areas. Further, water has been contaminated with salt and chemicals. 

Nickel is also used in lithium icon batteries, which has been reported [3] to cause serious environmental destruction and toxic pollution:

"Plumes of sulphur dioxide choking the skies, churned earth blanketed in cancerous dust, rivers running blood-red – environmental campaigners have painted a grim picture of the nickel mines and smelters feeding the electric vehicle industry."

Cobalt is also an important component of lithium-ion and around 50% of all the cobalt produced globally is used for rechargeable batteries [4]. According to Ethical Consumer [2] a significant amount of this cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is associated to child slavery and poor working conditions.

Batteries can, and should, be recycled. As they are made with metals, they can be infinitely recycled. If thrown away on landfill, batteries can release greenhouse gases and their more harmful components can be absorbed by the soil or leach into water supplies, lakes and rivers [2]. In the UK, companies selling over 32kg of portable batteries annually must provide a take-back scheme and accept all types of battery other than motor vehicle or industrial equipment. As such, nearly every supermarket will have a bank somewhere, even if it's not clearly advertised.

Change is on the horizon. The Global Battery Alliance, a public-private coalition, has outlined ten guiding principles to encourage the creation of a sustainable battery value chain by 2030 and over forty organisations have agreed to the proposed principles. You can read more about the plan here.

So, what's our take? We think batteries should be used only when there is no better alternative. Unfortunately that means most of the time. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is of huge importance to bringing about a more sustainable planet and whilst they're far from perfect at present we can't avoid them. As consumers our best option is to always opt for rechargeable batteries and when they're no longer re-usable we must recycle them. However, we should be aware of the terrible state of affairs and support campaigns that challenge battery corporations and demand better practices.

At Tecorra, we don't yet stock batteries. When we do, it will only be rechargeable ones. However, should anyone want to use our social media audience to promote campaigns to raise awareness or push for better practices please get in touch with us.

References

[1] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_A_Vision_for_a_Sustainable_Battery_Value_Chain_in_2030_Report.pdf

[2] https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/energy/shopping-guide/batteries

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/aug/24/nickel-mining-hidden-environmental-cost-electric-cars-batteries

[4] https://www.cobaltinstitute.org/rechargeable-batteries.html

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