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When we were kids, batteries lasted 5 minutes, and they would leak if left unused for any length of time - luckily both electronics and batteries have improved since then and dead batteries are far less common than in our childhood! There's still a baffling choice available when it comes to buying batteries, with some lasting better than others.
Rechargeable batteries are more expensive than single use ones, but they can be recharged between 100 and 1,000 times. In the long run they represent better value for money, and lead to fewer regular batteries being discarded in waste. The two most common types of rechargeable battery are Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH). Always choose batteries with NiMH on the packet - they don't suffer 'memory effect' and don't lose nearly as much charge whilst not being used. Also look at the power rating on the packet which is expressed as a number of 'mAH'. The higher this is, the better! For AA batteries look for a rating of 2,000 mAh or higher, for AAA batteries, choose 1,000 mAh or above. The higher this rating, the longer the battery will last between charges.
Some toys specifically state that rechargeable batteries are not suited to them. There could be a genuine reason for this because rechargeable batteries offer lower voltages than disposable batteries. AA and AAA disposable batteries are 1.5v, but rechargable ones are 1.2v. This means that rechargeable batteries may not deliver the voltage required for your toys. The voltage delivered by all battery types gets lower as the battery is used, and high-drain toys require higher voltages to run properly. As a general rule, toys that have moving parts driven by motors will consume the most electricity. There's no harm in trying rechargeable batteries - if they work, they work!
If you do have to go for disposable batteries, buy alkaline batteries rather than zinc based ones - the packaging should state 'Alkaline'. Non-alkaline batteries have a poorer shelf life as they discharge whilst not being used, so the longer they have been sat in the shop, the less power you're taking home with you!
Disposing of any battery type in regular waste is damaging to the environment as they all contain harmful metals that should not end up in landfill. All batteries should be taken to waste collection points or recycling depots - they may not be recycled, but they will be disposed of safely. In the EU, any store that sells batteries is now required by law to accept old batteries for recycling under electronic waste (WEEE) regulations.