Recycling batteries: Why we need to do more

Battery recycling in Britain is very low
Battery recycling
Less than three per cent of household batteries are currently recycled in Britain. Chie Elliott looks into why we're at the bottom of Europe's league tables
Every year the equivalent of 110 jumbo jets’ weight in old batteries end up in UK landfills

Simon Duffin, Head of Press of the European Parliament's UK office, cannot wait for a battery collection service to become available in his area. ‘I have a drawer full of old batteries at home.' he says. ‘It is probably polluting my home in the meantime.'

What Duffin knows, and the average Briton may not be aware, is that battery recycling is now regulated by a new EU Battery Directive, which sets collection targets of portable household batteries at 25 per cent by 2012 and 45 per cent by 2016.

The directive, agreed in September 2006, severely restricts mercury and cadmium batteries and requires all new batteries to be marked with the crossed wheelie bin symbol and chemical symbols for mercury, cadmium and lead.

The final part of the directive was transposed into UK legislation on 5 May 2009. As a 'producer responsibility' directive, collection schemes are to be financed by producers, and distributors are required to take back exhausted portable batteries in the absence of an existing scheme. Manufacturers or importers of batteries and electrical equipment with integrated batteries must register with a compliance scheme and provide regular sales data.

Lagging behind

The European Battery Recyclers Association (EBRA) represents 90 per cent of battery recyclers in the 27 EU member states plus Switzerland, Turkey and Norway. EBRA's statistics, based on 2007 members' data, show Switzerland as the top battery collector at 65 per cent, followed by Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France. The UK comes in 15th place at three per cent, alongside Turkey, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The distressing truth is that Britain is in the bottom league of battery recyclers in Europe. A survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in 2006 found the average UK household sends 21 portable batteries a year to landfill - a total of 600 million units - exposing our soil, groundwater and surface water to risk of contamination by heavy metals.

Three quarters of the survey's respondents said they threw away old batteries immediately or kept them for a short period of time then disposed of them anyway. Yet, nine out of ten people would be willing to recycle them if a door-to-door collection scheme was available in their area - a 'luxury' currently available to only seven per cent of UK's population. Three out of four people expected their council to provide information and share responsibility for battery recycling.

A quarter of those interviewed did not believe disposal of batteries in the normal rubbish would harm the environment.

Brighton and Hove City Council is one of the local authorities offering kerbside collection of batteries since 2004. The city was overall winner among the 20 most sustainable cities ranked by the Sustainable Cities Index in 2008. But even seemingly green citizens are not so zealous when it comes to batteries. 'We don't collect a whole load of batteries,' says Jan Jonker, Head of Strategy of Cityclean, the council's in-house recycling specialists.

Every year the equivalent of 110 jumbo jets’ weight in old batteries end up in UK landfills

Jonker, who is Dutch, has a theory regarding the high levels of landfilling in Britain as opposed to our continental cousins: ‘Historically, the UK had lots of holes in the ground. It was cheap to fill them, whereas Holland didn't have much mineral extraction.'

The split of local waste services in two-tier systems can be a hurdle in the way of integrated collaboration. Whereas district councils collect and recycle, it is the county council that looks after disposal. Consequently even a proactive programme at district level may have its efforts stalled by a less eco-dynamic county council.

Critically, local authorities' recycling targets are set in tonnage. It is understandable then that councils started recycling schemes for paper and glass containers ahead of plastics. In a world where weight matters, household batteries are the obvious losers.

The hurdles

At each stage of the recycling stream - sorting, transporting and processing - there are possible pitfalls.

First, collected batteries containing different chemical components must be separated - manually - by sorters before they can be processed.

Alkaline batteries are recycled in the UK but nickel cadmium (NiCd) and single use lithium ones are shipped to France, as no recycling facilities are available in the UK. In order to make a shipment cost-effective, 25 tonnes of NiCd batteries are needed, so the process can be slow.

Only one battery recycling plan, in West Bromwich, handles non-lead batteries. It was opened in 2005 by West Midlands-based recycling specialists G&P Batteries with a recycling capacity of 1,500 tonnes a year.

Michael Green, G&P's managing director, reckons waste batteries processing costs around £800 a tonne. ‘But nobody collects much in the way of a tonne. Most only collect around 50 kilos,' he says. Although unit cost decreases with higher volumes, high volumes are hard to achieve.

Green says a national recycling plant does not actually save money: ‘The costs are equivalent to sending them abroad for processing.'

With batteries being buried in landfills at a tenth of the cost of recycling and no previous incentives for improving recycling rates, is it no wonder we have become a country of reckless battery binners.

Catching up

Can such late starters still achieve the directive's targets by 2016? Green MEP Caroline Lucas is sceptical. ‘It will be difficult at the current rate. We need an adequate education programme and good communication from the government,' she says.

‘The problem is the government lacks political will and leadership. It has the tools to improve the system but chooses not to devote resources to it.'

EBRA‘s General Secretary Emmanuel Beaurepaire is more sanguine. Beaurepaire, a specialist in the field, says that with a collection system in place and public awareness campaigns, figures of 15 to 20 per cent collection are not difficult to achieve.

For a successful outcome he recommends that recycling responsibilities be centralised by one, at most two, organisations as in Belgium and Germany, not spread among multiple producers as in the UK.

But success comes at a price. ‘After 30 per cent it becomes harder to increase performance. And after 50 per cent each additional one per cent is a struggle. You need to spend more money and increase the pressure.'

The question is: whose money? In Belgium, which has a record of 59 per cent recycling rates, recycling coordinator BEBAT levied a charge from its members to finance collection, recycling and PR campaigns. The cost was passed on to the consumer.

British battery users had better be prepared to pay a 'green tax' on their next pack of AAs. And be grateful for it.

Chie Elliott is a freelance journalist

Five things you can do:

1. Buy battery-free appliances or use the mains whenever possible.
2. Buy nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries over less efficient and more toxic nickel cadmium (NiCd) ones.
3. Participate in your council's battery collection scheme, if available. If not, contact them and find out if one is planned.
4. Take your old batteries to your nearest recycling centre if they accept them.
5. Seek guidance from the original battery retailer or appliance manufacturer on how to dispose of waste batteries.