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Rechargeable Batteries That Might Actually Get Recharged

Rechargeable batteries might be more expensive, but they actually save money. And yet, no one buys them. Will a new battery recycling company shift the battery model?

Americans use up 3 billion batteries every year. Most people just toss their dead AAs in the trash, sending millions of pounds of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the earth through landfills, or, if they get incinerated, into the air.

"If you pop open your battery and put it in your fish tank, all your fish will die. The chemicals in there, they are not good for life," Jason Rugolo explains. He just got his PhD in applied physics from Harvard, studying nextgen battery technology for storing wind and solar power. But he wanted to focus his post-academic personal energies on a business, and one closer to market than a solar power grid. So he set out to make a cleaner version of the standard batteries all around us from remote control to kitchen flashlight. Now, he thinks he’s found a business model, and a battery design, that solves the trash problem completely. It still won’t be safe for your fish, but it will be zero waste.

His goal is to make rechargeable batteries that people actually use and, more importantly, that actually get recharged. Rechargeable batteries have been around for three decades and can be filled up 1,000 times. "They only cost twice as much," he says, pointing out how irrational our battery-buying habits are. "You think the economics would work out if they cost 900 times as much and you could use them 1,000 times, but they just don’t work out." People just don’t stick with rechargeable batteries.

Rugolo’s company earthCell makes it easier. You buy his batteries—for a bit more than Energizer’s alkaline alternative—in a ready-to-mail box. When you’ve used them up, you stick the dead batteries back in the mailer and send it off to earthCell to be recharged. You don’t get the batteries back, but you do get to know that your dead AAs will be reused up to 999 more times, keeping 1,000 batteries out of the landfill; when each battery is tapped out, it will be disassembled and recycled.

Rugolo promises his standards for a good battery beat out the competition in terms of charge life. EarthCell will check each one to make sure it has enough capacity for another round of service in our essential electronics, juice it back up again, and send it out to the next eco-conscious customer.

And at the end of the 1,000-recharges cycle, when earthCell declares the battery dead, they send the dead battery back to the original sub-contracted manufacturer, who separates out the metals inside and uses them over again. Everything gets reused, Rugolo asserts: "The label, for example, is made out of PVC, so that just gets recycled along with other plastics."

He wouldn’t reveal which company he sources his batteries from. "The way our set up works is the same company that we have manufacturing batteries for us also does battery recycling. They don’t recycle as many batteries as they make, so all of their recycled battery parts are going back into their new batteries. That’s part of why we chose them."

Rugolo knows that if he’s going to edge in on Energizer and Duracell, he needs to appeal to factors beyond cost, so he’s injected many other environmental benefits into earthCell’s plans.

His batteries—low self-discharge nickel metal hydride batteries—are less toxic from the start than traditional nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries, which are pretty terrible for the planet if they do make it into the earth. That’s especially important when you face facts and admit that not everyone will actually send the batteries back for recharging. If the net result of this business was that even just a few NiCad batteries ended up in landfills, that could be worse than hundreds of standard, non-rechargeable alkalines, so Rugolo needed to find a cleaner alternative.

"Our batteries don’t have any toxins in them that are really bad. … Throwing out an alkaline and throwing out ours, there’s not much difference," he says, adding, "I still think throwing out alkaline is not good."

Local laws differ about alkaline disposal. Some states, like California, ban landfill disposal while others, like New York, see little harm and encourage it. Either way, it’s better to recycle and earthCell wants to help.

EarthCell batteries are only available through the company’s Kickstarter page right now, and go for $17 for a 10 pack of AAs, including shipping and handling. That’s compared to about $10 for Energizer or Duracell. Rugolo calls that "cost competitive" because his batteries last a bit longer by his own company’s analysis. Once you can pick earthCells up at the drug store, the costs will come down, he hopes, enough to make zero waste batteries an energy habit for the masses.

[Hat tip: Gizmag]