I don’t think of myself as an extreme environmentalist, but then again I do live in Portland, Oregon; my litmus-tests might be a bit skewed. It’s weird to find a restaurant that doesn’t have separate recycling bins for compose and landfill, though it’s tough to decipher the difference. My recycling can at home is larger than my garbage can, and local stores offer to properly dispose of expired medication. It’s a hippie and yuppie utopia for sure, but that doesn’t mean we’re a carbon-neutral town. As gas-sipping as my hybrid car can get, and as efficient as my compact florescent light bulbs can shine, I’m still tromping around with a pretty hefty carbon footprint. The culprit is children’s toys, and the batteries they devastate.
There’s no denying that the average modern child’s toy takes batteries. It’s deviously amazing how they’ve shoved the need for portable power into even the simplest of playthings. Surely you’d expect a Slinky not to need batteries, but my son was gifted a name-brand version with a little LED on it so that it can glow and make streaks as it cascades down stairs. Markers and paper are clearly without need for power, right? Nope, now they have backlit drawing pads with markers that only mark on specific paper. Good for cleanup for sure, but if the power runs out, the markers lose some of their functionality. Even toys that are expected to take batteries, like model trains, now take different sizes. I’ve seen two “Thomas the Tank Engine” trains that work on the same proprietary track, but take two different sizes of batteries. It’s staggering the amount of battery acid that’s sitting in my living room right now.
It’s useless to take steps to limit the amount of powered toys that come into a toddler’s playroom. It’s like trying to stop the rising tide with a wall made of sand. All we can do is balance it out with non-battery operated toys such as Legos or sports toys. OH GOD EVEN THE FOOTBALL HAS LEDS IN IT! Like I said, it’s unavoidable. But there are steps we can make to limit the amount of spent batteries we throw out, and the amount of fresh batteries that we purchase.
First off, don’t throw out old batteries, recycle them. Batteries are some of the worst trash you can generate, because of their acid. If you have batteries that need to be recycled, there are places that can be found that will take and properly dispose of them. As admirable a practice as that is, it’s a hassle, especially if you’re making the trip every week. The next step would be to try rechargeable batteries. Assuming the toy takes batteries that can be rechargeable (button or watch batteries haven’t gotten there yet), rechargeable batteries are a great way to cut down on the expense and waste of one-time use batteries.
Unfortunately this doesn’t mean rechargeable batteries aren’t without their own pitfalls.
One might find two different types of AA rechargeable batteries back to back, made by different companies. The easy decision would be to grab the cheaper version because a battery’s a battery. Unfortunately that’s not the case, as some batteries are designed for lower power usage such as a TV remote, while others are geared up for higher intensity such as digital cameras. Rechargeable are always going to be more expensive than disposables, partly because they cost more to manufacture but also because it’s expected you’re still saving money by not having to buy 20 to 30 disposable versions. So if you’re already spending more money with the idea that in the long run you’ll be saving, go for the battery that’s right for the device they’re destined for. Regardless of the cost, you’re still saving money over time and helping the environment. Another thing to consider is the gas savings from the trips to recycle your used batteries that you no longer have to take, but that’s going full-hippie in my opinion.
Getting the right rechargeable battery for the job is important, but keeping a pair charged and ready at all times is up there as well. Think of it like a diet that requires the elimination of junk food. If you get a craving, you remove convenient temptation and have healthy snacks at the ready. In America, quick and easy is our junk food whether it’s food or materials, and in this case disposable batteries are the junk food. If you’re in the middle of an epic Xbox match and your controller dies, if there isn’t another charged pack ready to go, your options are limited. Do you stop playing for the four hours it would take to charge your pack? More than likely you’d either cannibalize a currently unused battery from another device, or just say “F–k it” and throw in some disposables. It’s important to buy enough rechargeable batteries so that at least one pair is always on the charger, and just as important to develop the habit of replacing that pair when you swap out.
Going back to button or watch batteries – these would be the dime shaped discs that fit in the smallest of toys – these have been recently proven to be extremely dangerous as a swallowing hazard, and are slowly being banned from children’s toys. It’s probably not worth it to stock up on those for toy purposes, and the toys that use them are usually McDonald’s toys at best. My recommendation on toys using those batteries: when they run out of juice, just tell your child, “That’s it. It’s a silent, non-flashing toy now.” Most of the time the toy is still fun to play with (your child was probably drawn to it before it was fully activated anyhow), and after a week max no one will care. Kids grow out of toys almost as fast as they do clothing, so chances are you’re going to care a lot more than your child that the LED on their Slinky doesn’t work anymore.
*sniff* It was so pretty at night.