According to the European Commission, more than two million tonnes of batteries are placed on the market in the EU each year. In the UK alone, more than 600 million batteries are disposed of, totalling more than 36,000 tonnes a year.
But despite such high usage, most are not properly collected and recycled at end of life.
For this reason, the EU developed the 2006 Batteries Directive, which set a target of 45% of all batteries to be recycled by September 2016.
Although it is mandatory for businesses selling more than 32kg of batteries a year to have an on-site collection point, the waste industry must also do its part in helping the EU meet its 45% objective – not only to keep the environment clean, but for the health and safety of those working within the industry.
This can be achieved by not only educating end-users about the hazards that batteries can cause but also the complex processes used to recycle them.
Many consumers are unaware that the dangers of improper battery disposal have the potential to be instant and tragic. According to the Chief Fire Officers Association, there has been an average of 250 fire-related incidents annually at waste sites during the past 10 years, including several largescale fires that caused severe disruption to local communities.
Because of their highly flammable nature, even if batteries do not initially cause fires, having them present at recycling facilities can accelerate the growth of a fire.
In terms of environmental impact, batteries contain toxic heavy metals such as nickel, cadmium or mercury. When sent to landfill, as a battery corrodes these elements often leak into the ground. This has the potential to cause soil and water pollution and endanger wildlife.
Many consumers are also unaware that the process for recycling batteries is much more complex than other materials. For example, the first step is sorting according to chemical make-up, separating the more dangerous types such as rechargeable drycells so they can be isolated and handled carefully while also increasing the amount of material that can be recycled from them.
The batteries then undergo a smelting process to create a liquid. This is treated to extract all materials from it to go into new products.
Producing educational materials for customers, such as leaflets, brochures and posters, is key to reducing the number of batteries making their way into other waste streams. In order to be effective, a persistent, clear message about the dangers batteries present when not disposed of correctly and responsively is imperative.
Offering a free collection service is another effective way of keeping batteries out of waste sites because it means recycling them does not inconvenience the customer and they are more likely to take heed and change their habits.
There is no question that some batteries will still be binned with general waste and recycling. This means that staff training at waste management firms is imperative so that employees who are likely to come into contact with batteries know exactly how to remove them.
For example, if a battery is spotted in one of the picking or sorting areas, machinery in that area must be turned off and the battery removed and put into a quarantine bin. If sparks have already been caused, the battery and surrounding material need to be quickly isolated using a bucket machine and then dampened down or the entire area is dampened down using a firefighting system.
With a September 2016 deadline looming, there is no better time for the waste industry to instigate better education of customers and develop new ways of encouraging battery recycling.
Paul Needham is managing director for Wastecycle
*This article was amended on 27 May to remove mention of UK recycling rates that were innaccurate.