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A positive start for battery recycling

AT A GLANCE:

The UK’s first year of portable battery recycling collection infrastructure has got off to a promising start but the 2012 recycling target still looks challenging for industry

Walk into any major supermarket chain now and a waste battery collection bin is a common sight. But it has only been a year since distributors of portable batteries (see box) were required to offer collection points for waste batteries - mainly retailers selling batteries. British Retail Consortium environment policy adviser Bob Gordon says that since the regulations came into play, all has been relatively quiet and gone fairly smoothly for retailers.

But he does make the point that while obligated retailers have to take batteries back in store, they are not obligated themselves to meet any targets. Of course, some retailers are also battery producers which means they fall under producer obligations. But for those that sell above the obligated volume of batteries, the batteries directive is simply another piece of legislation they must comply with.

“Not every local authority collects batteries, or every library or public building. And when you go to the shops you are going first of all to buy, not to recycle”

From the BRC’s perspective, the volume of batteries collected at retail points so far has been better than expected. But Gordon says collection points must extend beyond retailers in order for collection rates to really ramp up.

“The challenge is going to be how we hit the targets in 2012 and 2016 as we still have a long way to go and that is about providing the opportunities for consumers to recycle their batteries.

“We need to see more in terms of better infrastructure beyond retail. Not every local authority collects batteries, or every library or public building,” Gordon says. “You have also got to bear in mind that when you go to the shops you are going first of all to buy, not to recycle. ”

Battery Compliance Schemes (BCS) are the link between battery distributors and battery producers. They collect from retailers or distributors who must provide collection points, and arrange for the recycling of the batteries so that battery producer clients meet their legal recycling obligations.

Compliance scheme BatteryBack is a joint venture between WasteCare and Veolia Environmental Services. Its marketing manager Robert Simpson explains the BCS now has over 15,000 collection points, located at the premises of its customers which include big name supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons. It reports a healthy 40% market share of portable batteries collected in the UK.

Simpson says the first year has gone “very well” and the compliance scheme is particularly pleased with managing to secure major battery producer Duracell and the number of collection sites it has established. Simpson says this “changed the dynamics of how we work” as well as its obligations. Its aim was to get as many collection sites as it could across the country and by securing leading retail customers it has managed to do this. As well as retailers, it also has collection points in public buildings, such as libraries and schools. Simpson admits awareness is “still a bit lacking” but the BCS is currently working on a campaign to increase this which includes going into schools to raise awareness. “One thing we have found is that although there is awareness of the need to recycle batteries, people think the collection services are charged for, whereas all our services are free,” Simpson says.

Batteries regulations

Those selling batteries from the UK on a professional basis to an end-user (either the public or businesses) in an individual store, over the internet or via mail order, are classed as distributors.

From 1 February 2010, distributors of portable batteries/accumulators selling over 32kg of portable batteries per year in an individual store must provide free in-store battery take-back facility for any member of the public who has some batteries to dispose of. Approved battery compliance schemes (BCS) must make arrangements for collection of these batteries within 21 days of request.

A producer is someone with a UK presence who places batteries, including those in products, on the UK market. This includes manufacturers and importers of batteries or products including batteries.

Why the need for regulation?

Waste batteries and accumulators (rechargeable batteries) can damage the environment and cause health problems, as many contain toxic chemicals such as lead, cadmium and zinc. The batteries regulations limit the use of these chemicals by battery manufacturers and give producers the responsibility for ensuring waste batteries are collected and either treated or recycled.

Portable battery recycling targets:

The UK has to collect 25% waste portable batteries by 2012 and 45% by 2016. The Batteries Regulations include interim collection targets of:

Year     Target%

2010    10

2011    18

2012    25

2013    30

2014    35

2015    40

2016    45

BatteryBack currently sends the batteries it collects to mainland Europe for recycling. However, its joint owner, Veolia Environmental Services, is finalising plans to establish a battery recycling facility in the UK in 2012. 

With improved public awareness Simpson feels the UK should meet its battery recycling targets in 2011. “The challenges will be greater in the coming years, for which we have to invest now to avoid failure,” he says. Does he think the UK can meet the EU battery recycling targets of 25% by 2012 and 45% by 2016? “It is going to be a great challenge. We have already seen recycling rates increase from less than 3% to over 12% nationally in barely a year, which is impressive. The task now will get a much harder. All the schemes and their members must work together to improve public awareness and change the habit of throwing batteries in the waste bin.”

Budget Pack, another of the six EA-approved compliance schemes echoes these thoughts on the need to work together to meet tough targets ahead. Managing director Stephen Clark says: “We anticipate schemes will be more collaborative in their approach to addressing the culture change in the coming years in order that efficiencies can be made in the marketing and collection models.  At the moment, the targets are being met through collections of batteries which are easily available, but this will change.” Budget Pack’s producer clients include Amstrad, Ann Summers and BMW.

Clark explains its batteries are collected through a range of national and regional collection contractors from a range of sources such as HWRCs, Government buildings, shops and retail chains, petrol stations, banks and offices. Has he spotted any trends in terms of the number of batteries generated from different customers? Clark says recent months have seen more batteries coming through its distributor collection scheme and says it is the high profile, high traffic, collection points that are yielding the greatest volumes.

“The highest profile for public collection points of batteries is through the main supermarket chains and council HWRCs. Consumers have difficulty in understanding which shops would or wouldn’t have collection containers in place because it isn’t their business to understand the legal requirements on distributors.  As a result, the smaller or less well known distributors appear to be collecting less tonnage – footfall and demographics will also be very important,” he says.

“We have been developing stakeholders in various industry sectors that can lead the development of batteries collection campaigns, as we recognise that a consolidated and focussed approach has the best results,” he adds.

Approved battery treatment operator and exporter G&P Batteries recycles batteries from some compliance schemes, does collection work and exports batteries it does not have the facility to recycle. Managing director Michael Green says it is looking likely the UK will meet its 2010 target of 10% battery recycling, although the official figures are expected to be released by the Environment Agency at the end of February. He believes the 2011 targets also look feasible but agrees with Simpson and Clark that the 2012 target of 25% is looking very difficult: “There is a lot more to do to encourage the public, as the ERP and other surveys have shown.”

 

Q&A with the VCA

The Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) was appointed to ensure distributors were meeting their obligations. VCA WEEE & Batteries Enforcement Manager Steve North discusses the VCA’s focus this first year

How has the first year of operation gone and have there been any challenges that have had to be overcome?

In this first year VCA’s emphasis has been on engagement and education and we have worked actively with distributors, industry stakeholders and partner regulatory bodies to maximise the level of compliance. In carrying out our enforcement role our activities include site inspections by Enforcement Officers and gathering of information by Mystery Shoppers, as well as office based investigations for distance suppliers, such as internet distributors. To date VCA has conducted in excess of 2,000 inspections nationally and have identified over 70% of these stores as providing a take-back facility for customers, which is extremely encouraging. Particular challenges have been in assisting distance suppliers to meet their obligations, and working with smaller distributors potentially operating over the 32kg exemption threshold.

How satisfied are you with the awareness of these obligations?

Awareness of obligations has been high, especially amongst the larger, chain distributors and those SMEs and independent distributors who belong to a trade association. Coupled with a general public awareness of battery recycling, this has resulted in a good understanding of the availability of distributor take-back facilities, though the finer details of distributor obligations can cause some confusion.

Have there been any particular queries raised?

Initial distributor queries to the VCA concerned general clarification of obligations, primarily from the smaller battery distributor, and methods by which these obligations could be met. Complying with their obligations has been more challenging for distance suppliers, specifically those with business customers. We continue to work with distributors, industry stakeholders and partner regulatory bodies to assist distributors in meeting their obligations. As the first point of contact for many consumer queries, we continue to offer direct advice and clarification of distributor obligations with regards to battery take-back facilities.

Awaiting clarity for battery recycling plants

As UK facilities do not have the capability to recycle all battery chemistry types, many are sent abroad for recycling in France, Belgium, Germany and even Canada.

G&P Batteries managing director Michael Green explains that there is currently a question mark over the standards that battery recycling plants must meet, which is something that Brussels is attempting to clarify.

“There has been no clarity from Europe on what these standards are that have to be met. We have battery collection targets and also recycling efficiency targets, but the EU has not defined what ‘recycling efficiency’ actually means. So if you were building a new plant you don’t know if it will meet the criteria. Equally, all the existing plants do not know if they will meet the standards. We have a pre-treatment plant for a few chemistries but we are not going to commit an investment until we know exactly what the standard is we have to achieve.”

Green says the decision on clarity is expected to be made some time later this year – and that should the existing treatment plants that compliance schemes send their batteries to not meet this criteria, there will be problems.

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