The latest portable battery recycling figures from the Environment Agency (EA) make for confusing reading, but the bottom line is that the UK will need to up its game to hit its EU targets.
The UK just missed its target of recycling 45% of portable batteries in 2017 – nearly 17,500 tonnes were collected by compliance schemes compared with nearly 40,000 tonnes placed on the market. But the situation is worse than it appears.
Portable lead acid batteries accounted for around half of those collected, and a strange discrepancy arises when looking at how many are claimed to be placed on the market compared with how many are being recycled.
In the second quarter of 2018, more than seven times the amount of such batteries were collected by compliance schemes than were put on the market. This situation has been carrying on for some years, and it is unlikely that the figures are explained by old batteries coming out of storage.
In 2015 the EA announced that only lead acid batteries of less than 4kg, are sealed and can be carried without difficulty by hand would be counted as ‘portable’. Before the redefinition, somewhere between 3,500 and 6,900 tonnes a year of lead acid batteries between 4kg and 10kg were being counted as ‘portable’ for producer compliance schemes.
The UK had essentially been including heavy car batteries towards its portable targets, much to the annoyance of those who wanted to get at all those small batteries people tend to leave in drawers because few councils include them in their household collections.
But it seems the updated definition has created a new problem. MRW understands there are concerns within the sector that a large manufacturer of batteries is not declaring the amount of lead acid batteries it is putting on the market because of a dispute with the EA over what is meant by ‘sealed’.
Defra is holding a stakeholders meeting in October, and G&P Batteries has asked for the lead acid discrepancy issue to be placed on the agenda.
Greg Clementson, G&P’s managing director, said: “According to EA figures for 2017, 1,701 tonnes of lead acid batteries were placed on the market, but evidence was produced for recycling around 9,500 tonnes of such batteries. The two numbers are incompatible on a long-term basis, and imply that the use of portable lead acid batteries is significantly reducing when in reality it is probably increasing.
“It is well known within the battery and compliance industries that some of the largest lead battery manufacturers are no longer members of compliance schemes, making the case that their products are industrial, not portable.
Collected by compliance schemes in 2017
BatteryBack : 5,616
Valpak : 4,787
Ecosurety : 4,097
European Recycling Platform UK : 2,160
Repic eBatt : 768
Source: Environment Agency
“That is an issue for the authorities to clarify and provide guidance to the approved battery treatment operators and exporters, who issue evidence.
“There is clearly something very wrong with the way the UK is complying with the battery regulations, in comparison with every other European country, where the amount of lead acid batteries collected off the market does not exceed the amount being placed on it by a factor of three or more times.”
Compliance scheme Ecosurety has also called for small producers – companies that place less than one tonne of batteries on the market – to do more to back recycling. Such producers do not currently have to register with a compliance scheme.
EA figures for Q2 2018 show that 39% of the batteries placed on the market as measured by compliance schemes went on to be collected by them compared with 49% in the same period in 2017. This is clearly not the right direction of travel.
And the problem of lead acid remains. If the true amount of these batteries is included in the figures following Defra’s stakeholder meeting, the rise in the reported tonnage of batteries being placed on the market will mean the UK’s official battery recycling rate decreases – even though more recycling may actually be taking place.
On top of all this, the EU is currently revising the Batteries Directive. Might there be a more demanding target on the way, and will the UK accept this into domestic legislation?
Directive revision on the agenda
The International Congress for Battery Recycling (ICBR) took place in Berlin as MRW went to press, and the planned revision of the EU Battery Directive in 2020 was on the agenda. We present a Q&A with Alain Vassart, general secretary of the European Battery Recycling Association (EBRA), who was a speaker at the event.
The EU Commission plans to present a proposal for revising the Battery Directive. If you had three wishes, what would you like to see done?
My first wish would be to improve collections, especially for secondary rechargeable batteries. Second, I would like to see a pragmatic rule for extended producer responsibility (EPR) when electric vehicle (EV) batteries have a second life – chiefly on the financial side. My third wish would be a truly level playing field for sorting and recycling.
How would you describe the current economic conditions for battery recycling?
My overall view today is that existing recycling capacity exceeds the quantity collected, resulting in fierce competition among battery recyclers. The profitability margin is therefore under pressure.
How is the evolution of the battery market affecting collections?
Market developments have led to a considerable boom in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. However, these quantities are either not being sufficiently collected for portable batteries or they have not yet reached the end-of-life phase for EVs.
The booming demand for Li-ion batteries has therefore not yet led to a significant increase in the volume of used batteries being recycled.
For example, the specific collection rate for consumer and portable Li-ion batteries is significantly below the target rate of 45% required by the Battery Directive, partly due to the fact that many rechargeable batteries are built into devices. Their collection depends on the return rate of these devices and the subsequent separation of the batteries.
As far as the batteries of EVs are concerned, they are mostly still in use on the road and will only be available for recycling in a few years’ time. So, today, we can only speak of vague forecasts, which can be contradictory.
What other challenges do you see for battery recyclers?
On the one hand, we need to make sure that we recycle enough batteries within Europe to generate sufficient raw materials to produce new batteries for the same market.
On the other hand, if requirements regarding recycling efficiency are modified, it will involve an investment and operational costs as well as the need for a transition period. It also depends on which materials batteries will be made of in the future.
At this year’s ICBR, a panel discussion will be held on the topic ‘Battery Directive Review: Portable Batteries’. Which topics are likely to be addressed there?
The topics are still being prepared. But I am sure one is going to be about how specific collection rates for secondary consumer batteries can be improved. EBRA is open to reviewing the calculation method. The net result needs to be more batteries collected for recycling than previously.
Further topics are likely to focus on recycling efficiency and how to achieve more clarity regarding the definition of when an output fraction from the recycling process is considered as fully recovered.
Finally, there will also be discussion on how to clarify the EPR rules across all actors in the end-of-life management of batteries, included the new ones involved in second life, a new commercial activity. But we need to ensure that enough money is made.