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Defra does not back postal take-back system for waste batteries

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not supported the postal return system of waste portable batteries.

It has produced an advisory note entitled Storage and transport of portable batteries (24 July) in a follow up to a stakeholder workshop it held on the new battery system in May 2009. The note was produced to assist stakeholders, retailers and collectors in understanding what they need to do when collecting and transporting waste batteries.

AA batteries have an alkaline chemistry while others may be of lithium or nickel cadmium chemistries. Batteries containing lithium are classified as dangerous under the Dangerous Goods Act and transport of lithium batteries by air is banned (see MRW story). 

In the advisory note, Defra warns: As it will not be possible to identify which are lithium batteries and which are not, you should not transport used cells or batteries by air.

We do not advise postal return as a way to collect batteries from consumers because it is not possible to identify the quantity of batteries being posted, drivers might not know that they are carrying batteries and therefore what action they need to take to carry the batteries safely. It would also be difficult to ensure that batteries are not sent via air. The Department for Transports rules for the carriage of batteries are clear they must be carried by road or by sea. This is because the risk level is heightened when batteries are being flown.

The Royal Mail flies a certain percentage of its mail internally across the mainland but lithium batteries are banned by air because they can cause fires if they short out. For example, if the positive end of one battery touches the negative end of another to form a circuit it could potentially self combust. According to G&P Batteries managing director Michael Green, lithium batteries have more of a volatile chemistry than other batteries and fires caused by them are difficult to put out.

Waste solutions provider Rabbitt recycling chief executive Michael Morris said Defras advice was sound but there needs be better rationale behind the advice.

He said: People who are living in slightly remote areas who have the desire to recycle should be given the facilities to recycle. If the only method is to put it in the bag and post it, they ought to have that facility.

In its three-year battery collection trial study, the Waste & Resources Action Programme identified postal take-back as one option for collection of batteries. But WRAP favoured kerbside collection schemes overall.

Green added: I would not advise the general public at the moment to send waste batteries through the post unless it is part of a Post Office approved scheme. This is because the transport of lithium batteries is banned and because it will not be known what type of waste batteries are put in an envelope it will be illegal for lithium batteries to go by air.

Green said that posting batteries was expensive and compliance schemes may not want to fund them because they are looking at cost-effective ways of funding their collection schemes.

There may be a small role to play for postal-take back schemes in the next few years.

DfT regulation and enforcement head Caroline Billingham said: We advise Royal Mail that it would be impractical to support postal-take back to comply with legislation.

But we are not totally shutting the door.


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