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Are Used Batteries the Dark Side of Black Friday?

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Black Friday—the shopping extravaganza the day after Thanksgiving—needn’t be so dark for the environment if we can all be responsible with our used-up batteries.

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. It’s Black Friday—America’s celebration of conspicuous consumption. It’s the time when people do serious Christmas shopping, taking advantage of sales and specials that may only last for that 24-hour period. While not an official day off, many employers designate it as a vacation day and so many have it as a holiday—except of course those who work in retail.

Why Black?

 In the old days of manual accounting, “red” ink indicated a loss on the books, and “black” ink showed a profit. The day after Thanksgiving has always been thought of as the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season—the time when most retailers hoped their books would move into the black. Close to a third of all yearly retail sales take place between Black Friday and Christmas. US shoppers spent $9 billion on Black Friday in 2020.

For years, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have competed to dominate the shopping landscape. In 2020, Cyber Monday was the top day with 30% of consumers saying they planned to shop Cyber Monday sales, compared to 24% planning to shop on Black Friday. Over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend in 2020, consumers spent an average of $311.75 on holiday purchases. That's down from 2019's average of $361.80, but similar to 2018's average of $313.29.

Batteries on the Wish List

In 2020, consumers said they were looking for Black Friday deals on clothing (50%), home goods/small appliances (39%), toys (21%), tablets/laptops/PCs (20%), TVs (17%), and gaming consoles/video games (16%). You don’t have to look too carefully at that list to see that batteries, either primary or rechargeable secondary versions, are involved in nearly all of those items on the Black Friday wish list.

The Double-A (AA) battery has become nearly the standard cylindrical dry battery used in household electronics. They are typically used in wall clocks, remote-controlled vehicles, older digital cameras, TV remotes, battery-operated appliances, flashlights, motion detectors, smoke detectors, and much more. In fact, about three billion AA batteries are sold annually in the U.S. averaging about 32 per family or ten per person.

All the major retailers—big box, small box, and every box in between—have Black Friday deals on AA batteries and you can get a 100-pack of the little energy storage devices for less than $20 if you shop around.

There is no Away when Throwing Away

With so much shopping fun (the average Black Friday shopper starts their day before 6 am) is there a downside to it all? There is. The problem is that the vast majority of AA batteries are single-use alkaline batteries that are thrown away when they stop producing electricity. Each year Americans throw away 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C, and D) and they end up in landfills and dumps. The good news is that, unlike the 50 million tons of electronic waste produced worldwide each year, alkaline batteries in landfills don’t leak chemicals like lead and mercury into the soil. Most disposable AA alkaline batteries contain little or no mercury and they're considered nontoxic enough to toss out with the household trash, although you should check with your local or state solid waste authority to make sure that just throwing them away is acceptable. Some stores and home improvement centers will accept your used alkaline batteries and send them in for recycling.

By the way, button cell batteries used in items like remote car starters and watches contain silver and mercury. They must be recycled as putting them into a landfill allows toxic chemicals to leach into the soil. These batteries must be brought to a household hazardous waste disposal facility or an authorized recycling facility in the state. Some big-box home improvement stores will also accept them for recycling.

Rechargeable Batteries

One answer might be to buy rechargeable batteries in AA or AAA sizes for all of your new electronics purchases and then purchase a battery charger to make sure they stay fully charged and ready to go. A battery charger might make a great gift to pick up on Black Friday. Rechargeable lithium AA batteries can be recharged as many as 1,000 times before they are worn out and can greatly reduce the number of alkaline cells that head into landfills.

But here is the problem: even though they look like AA or AAA alkaline cells, rechargeable lithium-ion or nickel-metal-hydride battery cells cannot be safely placed in landfills and must be collected and recycled. This is the same for the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that come with cordless power tools—they must be recycled properly and should never just be dumped in the trash. Maybe put a box in the garage or under the sink to collect them before bringing them into a store that will accept them for recycling.

Green Friday

A slowly growing alternative to the frenzy of Black Friday is to spend at least part of the day outdoors and away from the shopping hoards. The movement is called Green Friday and the idea is to balance at least some of the conspicuous consumption with a bit of nature appreciation. A recent report says that up to 80 percent of items purchased on Black Friday along with the plastic packaging they are wrapped in will end up in a landfill after a very short life—often only getting one use before being discarded. Part of the Green Friday strategy is to ask yourself if you really need to spend an entire day buying the things on sale on Black Friday—do you really need that package of one hundred AA batteries, or, if you are disciplined enough to recycle, would fewer AA lithium-ion rechargeable batteries and a battery charger be a greener, more responsible choice? Even if you must be a part of the shopping extravaganza that is Black Friday, it wouldn’t hurt to try to make a little bit of Green Friday a part of your Thanksgiving tradition.

Kevin Clemens is a Senior Editor with Battery Technology.

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