Earth / battery graphic

UK eyes battery recycling targets

Strict statutory targets for the recycling of batteries will come into force next year. How will the UK fare?

We like our consumer technology to be portable, but this requires a constant supply of mobile energy so we're not tethered to the National Grid. We have two choices: replenish the power in our gadgets from the mains using rechargeable batteries; or buy disposable ones.

In each case, this creates a dilemma for the recycling authorities because the energy is usually stored in hazardous chemicals, which require specialist handling. Batteries contain hazardous waste substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium. If they are disposed in a landfill site, they could leak into the surrounding environment.

In 2004, the EU Landfill Directive placed a ban on the disposal of such hazardous waste in landfill sites. Hazardous waste – such as batteries – is not allowed to be mixed up with other waste streams. It must be separated, stored safely and collected for treatment before being disposed.

However, the UK lags behind many of its EU partners. In 2009, it was estimated that the UK recovered and recycled just 2 per cent of batteries. Seven years earlier, Belgium was recycling 59 per cent of batteries. Of the large European economies and where government figures exist, Germany recycled 32 per cent and France recycled 16 per cent.

From next year, the first statutory targets will be introduced and all EU states will have to recycle 25 per cent of batteries. The UK has a steep hill to climb.

One issue that the UK authorities face is educating the population on the importance of recycling batteries. With the recycling of other waste, local councils have only been able to get households to increase their recycling rate by allowing them to co-mingle plastics, paper and other types of materials.

Eco-friendly encouragement

Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by European Recycling Platform (ERP), one of the UK's six battery recycling schemes, found that only 42 per cent of people have recycled a battery. The keenest battery recyclers are in Wales (58 per cent), while less than a third of people in Northern Ireland have recycled a battery.

Interestingly, the survey discovered, you are more likely to recycle a battery if you are over 55 (52 per cent) compared to those in the 16-24 age bracket (27 per cent).

Kerbside recycling has seemingly been rejected as an option by the UK government because of the complexity of separation. Therefore, the six national recycling schemes were commissioned and run by private enterprises. One of these nationwide schemes was set up by West Midlands firm G&P Batteries.

It unveiled a prepaid collection service called Battbox to capture portable waste batteries from businesses that would otherwise throw them in the bin.

'Businesses have a big role to play in ensuring that the UK meets its EU targets,' says Greg Clementson, sales director of Battbox.

Under the scheme, UK businesses can order a Battbox online for a one-off fee of £25. The box can take any small battery from AA cells to batteries used in mobile phones, laptops and wireless keyboards. Once full, the business can simply call the number on the box and it will be removed.

After collection, the batteries will be taken to G&P's main facility in Darlaston, near Wolverhampton, where the firm handles about 24 million batteries a year. Here they are sorted according to the chemicals inside the battery, and sent for relevant processing. The zinc cells, which make up the vast bulk of portable cells, are sent to Matlock in Derbyshire for recycling.

National recycling schemes

However, not all of the schemes have been as successful as Battbox. The Environment Agency is responsible for the UK meeting its EU targets, and minutes from a recent meeting accepted that only five of the national recycling schemes had met their 2010 obligations for collecting waste portable batteries on their producer members' behalf.

However, one unspecified scheme declared that it had not met its obligations. The Agency has since served notice to remove this scheme's approval. The minutes state: 'As the scheme could not evidence sufficient collection of waste portable batteries, we are taking enforcement action, which has resulted in us serving a notice to remove scheme approval.'

The minutes also revealed that an appeal against this decision has been lodged by the undisclosed scheme with Defra, the department responsible for overseeing the portable batteries aspect of the UK batteries regulations.

As a result, the UK is not in a position to publish the final 2010 data until the end of this appeal. The original figures, published in March of this year, showed that the UK narrowly missed the 10 per cent target, which was set as a means of gauging its progress towards the first legally binding collection target set under the EU Batteries Directive.

The problem appears to be how to interpret the achievements of the targets. The easiest way appears to be by weight. However, a car battery, for example, weighs significantly more than household batteries.

The motor industry has had a good record of safely disposing of batteries. As they contain large amounts of lead acid, their disposal has been highly regulated for some time. Car-makers such as Toyota Motor Europe were previously obligated to dispose of these batteries safely. It was therefore a relatively simple step for the company to outsource its recycling to French company Societe Nouvelle d'Affinage des M'taux (SNAM) throughout Europe. SNAM takes back and recycles all the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) - commonly used in hybrid electric vehicles.

But the paper trail is still extensive. Significant guarantees have to be specified on what percentage of the materials are actually recycled to ensure that the process goes through the optimal recycling channels. This guarantees maximum output on secondary materials.

Toyota and SNAM work together to ensure that the recovered NiMH batteries can be taken back to any of Toyota's European operations, including Toyota's European head office in Belgium, or any of the company's nine manufacturing facilities including one located in the UK.

On the other hand, household batteries have poor recycling records. Since kerbside collections have been ruled out by the majority of UK councils, recycling points for consumers have been introduced.

Meeting green targets

If the UK fails to meet targets, its government could face huge fines. Vince Armitage, divisional vice-president at Varta Consumer Batteries UK, says this will be passed onto manufacturers and could ultimately push up the price of batteries.

The battery recycling scheme is expected to cost manufacturers around £3m per year. Retailers, who should have had recycling points in place since February 2010, have complained about the red tape involved. Shopkeepers selling more than 1,400 AA batteries a year, for example, are expected to log the number of cells received and sign up to the Hazardous Waste Register.

Complex formulae has been devised to take into account not just weight of batteries collected but power output and quantity. This is likely to create a great deal of confusion and a lack of confidence in the published results whether the UK government meets its obligations or not.

On top of this, there is no single method for calculating targets throughout Europe. The Environment Agency has confirmed that it will not take action against battery recyclers for not reporting the efficiency of their recycling processes.

Battery reprocessors were expected to meet and report standards for their battery recycling processes by in September. These standards, known as efficiencies, have to be met for a waste battery to count as recycled.

The efficiencies are minimum standards that reprocessors must meet for waste batteries to count as recycled However, the single Europe-wide methodology expected to be used to work out exactly how those efficiencies are calculated is yet to be agreed at a European level and, as a result, the European Commission was not expected to require them to report or meet any standards.

Naturally, this has led to confusion among UK battery recyclers over exactly what they would be expected to do to meet the European requirements, with Defra acknowledging it created a number of 'challenges' for the industry.

Key to this is news that, as expected before its statement earlier this month, the commission will be issuing a statement confirming that it will not take any action against operators unable to provide evidence of the recycling efficiencies being achieved following the September deadline.

Instead, the Agency says that Defra plans to request UK recycling facilities to voluntarily provide information on the efficiencies achieved by their recycling processes by May 2012 - almost six months after the targets become statutory.

It explains that, because there is no single EU methodology for working these efficiencies out, facilities will be allowed to calculate efficiencies based on data they already have available. This is likely to be welcomed by UK battery recyclers for not significantly adding to their administrative burden.

Defra plans to use this information to meet the requirements of the directive and report the efficiencies achieved to the Commission in June 2012. The Agency adds: 'After this date, Defra feels it would be reasonable to expect ABTOs/ABEs to be able to obtain information on recycling efficiencies in order to be able to comply with the reporting obligations in regulation 66(4).'

Earlier this month, the commission indicated it was hopeful that a single methodology for calculating efficiencies could be agreed by EU member states by the end of 2011. It would then be implemented 18 months later.

In its latest note, the Agency states: 'When a methodology is agreed and provided we will inform operators along with details of arrangements for them to provide the required information to us.'

Lack of facilities

Adding to the uncertainty over the reprocessing standards needed for waste batteries to count towards recycling targets is a shortage of treatment capacity, which could push the cost of compliance further.

An estimated 60 per cent of all discarded portable batteries from the UK are sent overseas for treatment. This is due to there being no domestic reprocessing capacity for alkaline manganese batteries, which represent the majority of waste portable batteries, anywhere in the UK.

Among the best-known reprocessing facilities was the Citreon SA plant in Le Havre, France. However, this plant closed after becoming bankrupt in December 2010, while the Valdi plant at Feurs, in France, is currently closed for an unconfirmed period as a result of a fatal explosion in June.

G&P Batteries in the West Midlands, one of the key sorting routes for waste portable batteries being sent batteries overseas, voices concerns over treatment capacity and queries recycling efficiencies and standards that dictate what can count towards the 'useful materials' that can be recovered from a waste battery for it to be classed as recycled.

Because of a lack of an EU-wide standard,'firms are unwilling to invest in additional capacity. As a result, while reprocessors know they need to recover 75'per cent of useful material from nickel cadmium batteries, 65 per cent from lead acid batteries, and 50 per cent from others, they don't know exactly how to calculate what counts towards this.

Clementson of G&P Batteries suggests that, while potentially impacting on the UK's chances of meeting collection targets and also pushing up prices, setting the efficiencies high could be more beneficial from an environmental perspective.

'We will put prices up; producers won't be happy because they will end up carrying the extra cost, but it might give us the opportunity to improve environmental standards, which has to be for the common good,' he says.

A final decision on the efficiencies could be the deciding factor when it comes to a dedicated waste portable battery recycling plant being built in the UK.

'If they stay where they are in terms of existing processes being able to count [as meeting the efficiencies] it's hard to see the UK being able to have a dedicated recycling plant for the full process,' Clementson explains. *

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