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Powered to recharge

Every year South Africans use about 50-million batteries to power their lives. But only about 3% of these batteries are rechargeable and the rest of those chemical-heavy batteries are generally discarded in the household trash.

The problem is that the chemicals in batteries are hazardous to the environment, including heavy metals such as aluminium, cadmium, mercury, nickel, lead, iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and lithium. Some of these chemicals are highly toxic to humans, animals and plants. When the chemicals leak out of the batteries, they decompose and in the process can pollute the soil and poison ground water for up to 50 years.

So why do some battery packs contain the WWF logo? Well, those bearing the famous panda logo are actually rechargeable batteries manufactured by Uniross.

The company only manufactures rechargeable batteries and signed an agreement with the WWF two years ago to raise public awareness about the environmental hazards of disposable batteries.

This partnership extends across 40 countries and allows for the creation of a series of initiatives to raise public awareness about the ecological advantage of rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries (one rechargeable battery can replace the use of up to 1 000 disposable batteries) as well as the environmental importance of recycling old batteries.

No mechanism existed in South Africa to collect and recycle batteries when they came to the end of their useful life, so Uniross South Africa decided to set up specific points where consumers could recycle their old batteries.

As the company’s core business is batteries, they initiated a programme in conjunction with retailers such as Makro and Pick n Pay to help solve the problem by setting up in-store collection sites where consumers can safely dispose of discarded batteries, says Uniross marketing manager, Michael Rogers.

But what happens to the batteries once they have been collected?

Unfortunately, Rogers says, there is no recycling facility in South Africa to deal with batteries. ”Uniross collects, sorts and stores these old batteries until we have sufficient quantity to merit a shipment to a recycling facility in France,” he says.

An independent French study has shown that replacing disposable batteries with rechargeable batteries will eliminate 330 000 tons of waste worldwide. Rechargeable batteries also consume up to 23 times less non-renewable fossil and mineral resources than disposable batteries.

But cash-strapped consumers are hesitant to fork out R150 for four rechargeable batteries and a charger when R30 will give them an instant energy fix. ”One of the main factors discouraging consumers from switching to rechargeable batteries is usually the perceived higher cost,” explains Rogers. ”But, in fact, rechargeable batteries are substantially cheaper than disposable batteries in the long run.”

Rechargeable batteries are not a new invention, nor are they exclusive to Uniross. Most of the larger battery suppliers, including Duracell, Energizer and Eveready, all have a range of rechargeable batteries.

But their core business, Rogers says, is still disposable batteries. ”These bigger battery suppliers cannot take the environmental high road, as they continue to sell and support these dangerous disposable batteries,” he says.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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