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As Battery Demand Falls, Can Energizer Keep Going?

Nov 28, 2012
Originally published on November 28, 2012 6:15 pm

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now, let's turn to today's business bottom line. As more people buy smartphones and other devices that run on rechargeable batteries - this will come as no surprise - sales of single-use, disposable batteries are dropping; and that is not without consequences. Energizer announced this month that the company will close three plants because of decreased demand. That is a 10 percent cut of its global workforce. Vermont Public Radio's Kirk Carapezza reports on one community that is feeling the pain.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Anyone who's connected electronically has likely powered their flashlights, clocks and transistor radios with Energizer batteries; batteries made famous back in the 1980s and '90s in TV ads featuring the indefatigable pink Energizer bunny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENERGIZER ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Still going. Long-lasting Energizer batteries keep going and going and...

CARAPEZZA: But Energizer announced recently that production at plants in Malaysia, Missouri and Vermont won't keep going. That's because disposable battery sales are way down. The market research firm Symphony IRI Group says sales are off by 21 percent, since 2009. Energizer itself estimates that shipments have dropped more than 10 percent in that same period, and that they'll continue to drop as more people use devices with rechargeable batteries.

Scott Cassel is CEO of the Product Sustainability Institute, in Boston. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of the company is the Product Stewardship Institute.] He says using fewer single-use batteries that contain hazardous waste, is a good sign for the planet.

SCOTT CASSEL: Because you don't need to mine the materials - the metals that go into those batteries - with all the implications, and the impacts, on the environment that mining causes.

CARAPEZZA: Reducing the number of batteries benefits the environment, but it's costing blue-collar jobs here in St. Albans, Vermont; a small town just south of the Canadian border. Even before Energizer said that its product line would end here, the company had already gone to a four-day workweek.

GEORGE BASSETTE: Companies are going to do what they need to do and, you know, we're just going to be the victims of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR SLAMMING, ENGINE STARTING)

CARAPEZZA: George Bassette has just finished his overnight shift at the plant. He hops in his truck and goes to his second job, where he landscapes with his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAKING)

CARAPEZZA: As he rakes scattered leaves, Bassette struggles with the idea of going from making $21 an hour, to part-time work, to unemployment. He says the situation has left him frustrated.

BASSETTE: I understand that the demand is dropping quite a bit and going rechargeable, and maybe we should have tried to get some rechargeable business here.

CARAPEZZA: But Energizer says it's too late for that, and too late for these jobs. The production line in St. Albans will end next September with a complete shutdown, leaving 165 workers jobless. While he admits it's difficult to lose any jobs in a tough economy, Scott Cassel - of the Product Stewardship Institute - says there's an opportunity to shift the nation's workforce toward green jobs.

CASSEL: If we can use more rechargeable batteries, and less of the single-use batteries, we're actually saving resources. This is the price of innovation. This is what we need to look forward - into the world of greater sustainability.

CARAPEZZA: Energizer says it will consolidate battery manufacturing at its other plants, including a much larger one in Singapore.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.