New batteries may put a charge into consumers By: Eben Shapiro

February 18, 1991|By New York Times

Several companies are offering new lines of rechargeable batteries, to try to get consumers to throw away their disposable alkalines for good.

Companies like Sanyo and Gates have brought out new brands, under the names Sanyo and Millennium, with changes they hope will make them more appealing to consumers.

Rechargeables have been available for decades, but aside from their use in small appliances like hand-held vacuums and tools, they have yet to catch on with the public.

Technical refinements in the recharging units have shortened the time needed to replenish the batteries' strength. The prices of some models have fallen, and some have been repackaged to look more attractive and less boxy.

American consumers use 2.5 billion batteries a year, and rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries, known as ni-cads, account for only 8 percent of the $2.8 billion market.

But rechargeables have the potential to account for up to 20 percent of the market, said Joseph A. Carcone, vice president of marketing and sales for Sanyo, a division of Sanyo Electric Co. of Japan.

"It is probably the fastest-growing segment of the battery industry," said Terry Telzrow, manager of standards and product safety for the Eveready Battery Company, the nation's No. 1 battery maker and a unit of the Ralston Purina Company.

To stimulate new growth, some companies are also hoping to capitalize on the perception that rechargeable batteries are less harmful to the environment. Regular batteries, which must be thrown away after several hours' use, contain carcinogenic chemicals, like mercury, that can poison the environment. Rechargeable batteries can be reused hundreds of times.

But an environmental pitch might backfire, some battery makers warn. Rechargeables contain cadmium, a carcinogen that is highly toxic to aquatic life and can cause kidney ailments in people who eat the contaminated fish.

That makes an environmental appeal "a double-edged sword," said Jay Pomeroy of General Electric Co., an early proponent of rechargeables. He said the cadmium content had prevented company officials from "beating our chest" about the environmental benefits.

That has not stopped others from recommending rechargeables as products for a new age. Sanyo Energy U.S.A. Corp. of San Diego trumpets its new rechargeables and chargers as "environmentally responsible."

Sanyo, which for years was one of the world's largest makers of rechargeables for industrial uses, introduced a line of rechargeable batteries for consumers in January.

Gates Energy Products Inc., a Gainesville, Fla., battery maker that introduced its line of Millennium rechargeables for consumers last year, says in its promotional material, "All of us are learning we haven't been as kind to our planet as we should have been."

Sanyo and Gates will accept used rechargeables for recycling, if consumers send them in, but there is no cadmium recycling operation in the United States. The battery makers say they will ship the dead batteries to East Asia for recycling.

Other companies making a strong push into rechargeables include SAFT America Inc. of Valdosta, Ga., a subsidiary of Compagnie General d'Electricite of France, and the Panasonic Industrial Company, a division of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.

SAFT and Gates executives say consumers are buying 25 percent more rechargeables each year.

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