Commission aims to step up battery recycling

The European Commission intends to issue proposals by the end of 1996 to amend two Directives on the separate disposal and marking of batteries containing dangerous substances. The proposals will set recycling targets and cover all types of batteries. Meanwhile, the UK battery industry is failing to meet its own annual targets for recycling of nickel/cadmium (NiCd) batteries, achieving a recycling rate of only 5% in 1995.

The 1991 EC Directive on batteries required Member States to draw up programmes for the separate disposal of spent batteries which contained specified levels of cadmium, lead and mercury, and a gradual reduction of their arisings in the household waste stream. A second Directive in 1993 set requirements for the marking and labelling of such products (ENDS Report 229, pp 32-33 ).

The first recovery programmes covered the four-year period from March 1993, but Member States were left unsure whether these should contain recycling targets. Last year, the Commission wrote to most Member States, including the UK, warning that their measures to encourage recycling were insufficient to meet the Directive's objectives.

Earlier this year, the Commission produced a working document outlining fresh proposals. A new Directive is needed, it says, because the collection and marking requirements of the existing Directives have been implemented in different ways by Member States, distorting the internal market. The recycling proposals fit with another Commission proposal for a Directive requiring separate collection of hazardous wastes, including batteries, from households (ENDS Report 265, pp 41-42 ).

In addition, technological changes - mainly due to the substitution of mercury - have pushed 98% of primary general purpose batteries outside the scope of the existing Directives. Many of these contain zinc, regarded as a hazardous substance.

Sweden and Austria also want EC limits on the mercury content of alkaline manganese batteries tightened up to their own standards before these must be brought into line with EC limits by the end of 1998.

Central to the Commission's proposals is the extension of the Directives to cover all types of batteries and accumulators because most contain substances classified as hazardous in EC law, and because limiting the requirements to three types of battery has led to high costs for separate collection and disposal. This approach has strong support from the Netherlands, where industry has produced a plan to take responsibility for all batteries collected by local authorities, and from Sweden, where the battery industry is aiming to collect 90% of all NiCd batteries. The other main points are:

  • New marketing restrictions: Batteries containing more than the natural background level of mercury - about 5 ppm - should be prohibited, except for alkaline manganese button batteries because alternatives are not available. This will bring EC limits into line with those in Austria and Sweden, and is supported by the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

  • Cadmium batteries:
    These should be "progressively" removed from the market where substitutes can be developed. This, according to the Commission, would be in line with the EC's waste strategy, which stresses the need to reduce the content of hazardous substances in waste. Further justification for the phase-out is provided by the declaration of the 1995 ministerial conference on the North Sea, which invited the Commission to impose marketing restrictions on NiCd batteries of less than 500 grams.

  • Collection, recycling and disposal: The Commission wants Member States to ensure that all batteries are collected separately from household waste. They would be obliged to promote material recovery in order to divert batteries from incinerators and landfills, and to promote producer responsibility - for example, by setting up deposit systems or other economic instruments.

  • Marking appliances: The idea of marking certain appliances which contain batteries should be "given consideration", the Commission believes.

    In the UK, batteries were brought under the Government's producer responsibility initiative in 1993, and manufacturers were told to devise a national collection and recycling strategy (ENDS Report 226, p 33 ). This was submitted to the DTI and sent to the Commission in 1995.

    NiCds were highlighted as the main problem because waste arisings were growing rapidly in line with higher demand for portable electronic goods and little collection was taking place. Worldwide, NiCd batteries account for an increasing proportion of cadmium use, reaching 60% in 1994.

    The strategy's aim was to "encourage" industry involvement in collection of NiCds for shipping to the nearest recycling plant in France, rather than the development of a nationwide collection scheme. Neither, said the strategy, was the industry to "finance or coordinate any such national programme." Recycling targets for NiCds were included in the battery industry's strategy (see below ).

    According to the International Cadmium Association (ICA), only 98 tonnes of NiCd batteries were recycled in 1995. This represents just 5% of the estimated arisings of 2,002 tonnes. The amount recycled in 1996 is estimated to have risen to 156 tonnes - still less than half the industry's target.

    The ICA says that demand for NiCd batteries in the UK is rising at about 5% per year. The two biggest markets, power tools and mobile communications, have annual growth rates of 20-30%.

    New NiCd battery recycling targets for the period 1997-2001 are being drawn up by the UK NiCd Battery Recycling Group (REBAT), which was relaunched earlier this year and now includes 30 battery and electronics businesses. The targets will be added belatedly to the UK's second battery programme by the end of July - three months after the strategy was sent to Brussels. The DTI will monitor REBAT's progress in reaching the targets annually, or more frequently if there is no initial progress.

    At the beginning of 1996, a plan to develop four local recycling projects, from which a national recycling network could be developed, was presented to REBAT by Save Waste and Prosper (SWAP). Although SWAP estimated the cost at a modest £30,000 per year, the plan was not taken up by industry.

    The UK programme also covers:

  • Mercuric oxide batteries: The single UK manufacturer of mercuric oxide button cells, Rayovac, is committed to ending production by the end of 1997. Production has dropped substantially in recent years as this type of cell has been replaced by zinc-air, alkaline manganese and lithium products. Use is mainly confined to older designs of hearing aids and cameras, and these will continue to be supplied from stock after 1997 to avoid the need to discard such older equipment.

  • Government procurement: In order to fulfil the Directive's requirement to promote the marketing of batteries containing smaller amounts of dangerous substances, the DTI says it will take the heavy metal content of batteries into account in its purchasing decisions, and encourage other Government Departments to do the same. This activity will be reviewed midway through the four-year programme.

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