At first, I didn't believe the statistic.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that 40 percent of all household batteries - as in AAs and AAAs - are bought during the holiday season.

Further, this blitz of battery buying bumps sales to three billion batteries a year.

How could we possibly need so many, I wondered.

Then I visited a toy store.

Batteries keep digital scores for games. They make trucks roll. They are apparently essential for toys that teach, dolls that croon, and even piggy banks that tally the take.

How depressing.

No longer do stuffed toys just cuddle. Now they can all but hold conversations. Tickle Me Elmo (three AAs) shakes with laughter and says "that tickles!" when you press his stomach.

Perhaps the most appalling toy of all was a Barbie "Shopping Time" cash register (three AAs). As if today's tykes weren't getting into the consumer/shopping thing soon enough, it was aimed at children as young as 3.

But with all this sputtering, perhaps I digress. The point is that tons of batteries are used, and most of the ones sold today are alkaline batteries that are used until they die, then thrown away.

They're easy and convenient, to be sure, but also wasteful.

And expensive, says Lester Lave, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. In this region, power from the wall outlet costs about 15 cents a kilowatt hour, compared with 60 cents to a dollar for portable power from a battery.

And no battery is truly green, he says. All have materials that are somewhat toxic.

But there are options. In fact, so many that exploring them can be dizzying.

Two Web sites present a geeky wonderland about the science of batteries and the relative merits of alkaline, nickel metal hydride and lithium.

One is, which Nevada's Curtis Randolph created after losing his enthusiasm for his job and becoming passionate about batteries instead.

The other - - is run by a Canadian manufacturer of battery analyzers and chargers.

Bottom line: Rechargeable is better.

For Randolph, the logic is simple. Virtually all batteries are made overseas and of roughly similar materials, eco-wise, so it's better to use ones you can juice up again and again - hundreds of times - instead of throwing them out after one discharge cycle.

More precisely, an independent study carried out for Uniross - which, yes, makes rechargeable batteries - found that disposables had 32 times more impact on the environment than rechargeables.

All of this adds a new "r" to the familiar eco-mantra. Now, we need to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recharge.

Better still, solar charging gizmos now exist, although I've only seen them online and in "green" stores, not the big-box places. Insert battery, leave on sunny windowsill and voila! What a fun way to get into solar power!

Problem is, Randolph says, most solar chargers are just that: gizmos. They can take days to get a battery to full charge. Better solar chargers exist - and he sells them - but they're upwards of $70.

Then again, if you're not tickling Elmo every two seconds, so what if recharging takes a while?

Don't forget that solar energy is pollution-free, Lave points out, while in this region, about two-thirds of the electricity from your wall outlet comes from coal.

The final step in greening battery use is to recycle them.

As usual, California is leading the way. It mandates recycling for all battery types.

In this region, opportunities for recycling disposable alkaline batteries are limited, but a few places exist. Check

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association says that alkalines are innocuous in landfills - they no longer contain mercury - and that recycling them imposes a net negative on the environment when compared with landfilling because there's really nothing of value in them.

This offers another reason for going with rechargeables: Because they contain valuable metals such as nickel and lithium, recycling companies want them, and many household hazardous-waste events collect them.

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., an industry group, lists at businesses that accept rechargeables.

Plugging in my semi-rural zip code, I got 15 locations within 10 miles.

Still, I wonder if we really need all these batteries, and what we are teaching our children in the process.

Back at the toy store, I paused to think about this in front of one toy in particular, powered by three AAs.

It was a Tonka trash and recycling truck.