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The ‘wrong’ type of battery is being collected

Figures for the second quarter of 2014 from the Environment Agency (EA) show that the UK is well on target to meet its 35% collection target for portable battery obligations.

We have collected more than 7,500 tonnes of waste batteries to date out of an expected yearly obligation of around 11,800 tonnes. This is a real turnaround from the levels of around 3-4% only four to five years ago.

But during the past couple of years, the industry has recognised that lead acid batteries seem to be the only chemistry type which saw a growth in collection. During Q1 2014, five and a half times more lead acid batteries were collected than were actually placed on the market. The volume of nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) and ‘other’ batteries, which make up the vast majority of new batteries placed on the market, had seen a decline.

Differences in interpretation between battery recyclers and producers about which lead acid batteries are classified as ‘portable’ and which are ‘industrial’ at the beginning and end of life has led to disparities in collection volumes. Happily, the EA’s recent data has shown that this trend has been reversed. During Q2 2014, a higher volume of Ni-Cd and ‘other’ chemistries of battery were collected than during any time in the previous year.

Concern about data

But even with this data, the numbers should still represent a concern. The over-reliance on the proportion of lead acid batteries being collected for recycling means the UK is still heavily dependent on meeting its targets from batteries which already had a good track record in terms of recycling.

With a recycling target of 45% for portable batteries in 2016, changes in the definition of a portable battery being adopted in 2015 and the growing electric vehicle market, the UK is in danger of a collapse in its recycling rate.

A major job is in educating the general public of the need to recycle their portable waste batteries. Compliance schemes have done a great job in getting recycling containers out into the marketplace and starting to build the volumes that are collected. But despite this, large numbers of people are still unaware of the importance of not throwing away batteries in their household waste.

Tackling the whole life environmental impact of batteries through the application of producer responsibility legislation has had limited effect, mainly because the aim has been to shift end-of-life costs to the private sector. Such initiatives have improved collection and recovery of materials, resulting in improved recycling rates, but they have also managed to fragment and dilute responsibility through the involvement of third-party organisations.

Lack of incentive

There is little incentive for the genuine redesign of products to aid recycling. Almost 90% of rechargeable batteries are sold with or in the products they power and are not designed to be removed. Very few smartphone lithium-ion batteries find their way into recycling containers, and market-leading products such as Apple’s iPhone no longer have a removable battery. That said, there have been murmurs from the German federal environment agency that built-in batteries should be banned.

The main challenge to the UK recycling industry is the long-term nature of financial investments to develop specialised waste disposal services. The market is still developing, with lithium recovery in its infancy.

The specific effects and overall profitability of these investments are difficult to quantify. Lack of standardisation in battery chemistries and a changing landscape with respect to elements that are under research for battery production have made evaluation of the recycled value of the components uncertain for recyclers.

Future battery chemistries, such as phosphate or manganese, have little or no valuable metals and there is a net negative value for recycling. So recycling in the long term will be for environmental and legislative reasons rather than financial.

Without suitable disposal options, the UK battery recycling industry should expect to see an increase in recovery costs; whether they are borne by a reduced number of obligated producers or the recycling schemes is to be seen. But all are agreed that in order to begin to tackle the threat to collection rates, addressing the batteries in products and increasing consumer awareness has to be the foundation of the recycling sector’s effort.

Jason Cracknell is hazardous waste manager at Cawleys

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