Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Do you know of any chain retail stores that offer recycling for alkaline batteries? Or is there a better way to dispose of them than just tossing them into the trash? We are trying to be more conscientious about the final resting place of our “dead” double-A’s.

Walt
Asheville, N.C.

A. Dearest Walt,

Given the timing of your letter, I can’t help but wonder if you’ve got children, and you’re nervously anticipating a holiday season filled with battery-operated toy robots, electronic guitars, and other beeping, flashing amusements. (Gift-givers everywhere: Whatever happened to a nice rag doll or set of blocks?) Or perhaps you simply need some juice for your camera, smoke detector, and flashlight. Either way, the answer to your question is a resounding “Yes!”

I checked, and you can drop off those dearly departed alkaline batteries at the Buncombe County Household Hazardous Waste Facility. I found this using Earth911’s recycling search tool (and all you non-Ashevillians can do the same for your towns). Even if you didn’t have a drop-off center in your area, you could still mail in batteries for recycling to Battery Solutions or Cleanlites Recycling.

Alkaline batteries could safely go in the trash (unless you live in California, that is), but there are two good reasons not to do this. One, you’ll be keeping their hazardous contents from seeping into the ecosystem, as might happen as they degrade in a landfill. Two, you’ll be diverting trash from the waste stream and giving the batteries’ steel and zinc content new life.

But we’re not done here, Walt. After you give those AAs a proper sendoff, I’d like you to consider a better replacement option: rechargeable batteries. They do cost a bit more up front, but with a life cycle that includes hundreds of charges, you’ll quickly make that up. Besides, rechargeables mean you’ll be slashing your contribution to the battery waste stream.

Your best bet these days are nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which beat out an older type, nickel cadmium (NiCd), because they offer more energy capacity and don’t contain the highly toxic, carcinogenic metal cadmium. NiMH batteries come in the same standard sizes you’re used to with alkalines, and you re-up them using a plug-in charger. They’re especially useful in power-sucking gadgets [PDF] such as digital cameras or GPS units. The standard type requires charging before use, but you can also buy precharged NiMH batteries (a.k.a. hybrid, ready-to-use, or low discharge batteries) for a boost on the go.

Got ‘em? Great! You can follow a few simple steps to prolong the lives of your rechargeables, further reducing your battery trash. These power pumpers work best when topped off, but the standard type lose juice quickly — between 1 and 5 percent of their supply per day. Recharge them every month or so to keep them at peak performance. (The precharged cells retain their charge a lot longer, draining only 10 to 20 percent in six months.)

You can also pop batteries out of any devices you aren’t consistently using, and fully charge them up again before you bring them back into service. And check and follow manufacturer charging instructions, as different brands may require different strategies. A “smart charger” is also a bright idea: These models sense when batteries are full and automatically shut off the flow of electricity (and can be had for about 20 bucks).

And when you’ve finally drained the very last drop of life from them, rechargeable batteries can also be recycled (and definitely should be — their metal content makes them hazardous to toss). There are tons of drop-off locations in Asheville, including your local Staples, Best Buy, and Radio Shack, which I discovered using Call2Recycle’s locator tool. If recycled, their metals will be reborn as home appliances, golf clubs, cars, or — in a beautiful example of the cycle of life — another set of batteries.

Voltily,
Umbra