Battery recycling could benefit from improved battery design and indicators

Recycling of used lead-acid batteries could be improved by changes in battery design, and dangers to health and the environment could be further reduced with the introduction of performance indicators such as environmental auditing and environmental management systems. So says a set of draft UNEP international guidelines for environmentally sound battery disposal.

The technical working group of the Basel Convention, which produced the guidelines, has also suggested that international standards such as ISO 14000 series and ecolabelling should be pursued, but that any future developments are dependent on accurate data generation.

Determining a country’s priorities must be the first step toward the environmentally sound management of battery waste, according to the guidelines. This must establish whether external recycling is more appropriate, instead of internal recycling, or whether regionally based facilities would be more effective.

The guidelines point out that the participation of the consumer is the cornerstone for implementation of all recycling programmes. As a pre-recycling policy framework, waste minimization, maximising economic and environmentally friendly waste recovery; enhanced access to domestic sources of lead; and provision of the means for developing environmentally-sound and economically efficient facilities are identified as the priorities.

No single collection system is recommended, but the report comments that there seems to be a general trend to developing legislation based on the principle of producer responsibility. The main regulatory procedures recommended are: prohibition of environmentally unsound destinations; licensing of retailers to collect and temporarily store used batteries; licensing of smelters and adoption of best available technologies, or upgrading to high standards of environmental protection; and “resource sharing” in consortia considered where budgets are tight.

Battery manufacture is by far the largest single end use for lead, accounting for an estimated 70% for consumption worldwide, and this is estimated to increase to 80% in the near future, as lead uses elsewhere are minimised in response to health and environmental concerns. The average battery life is estimated at 20-24 months worldwide ranging as high as five years in Western Europe.

The latest draft, which was proposed on May 24th, for provisional adoption, prior to formal adoption in December, takes account of a number of new issues. These include new technologies to prolong battery life, emissions at recycling plants and the need to develop national recycling measures in the rapidly developing countries. The level of dioxin emissions and their impact on human health were also updated.

In the past, criticism has been ranged at the developing world for off-loading used lead-acid batteries to developing countries to avoid the increasing reprocessing costs at home as environmental regulations became increasingly tight. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes was adopted in 1989, banning the dumping of hazardous waste on non-OECD countries. However, this did not cover recycled materials, such as lead-acid batteries. It was not until January 1, 1998, that this “loophole” was closed.

Around 93% of US lead-acid batteries were recycled last year, according to the latest figures from the Battery Council International.

In Europe, the disposal of lead-acid batteries is under review as part of the revision of the EU battery directive, which, according to WasteWatch, includes proposals for EU member states to collect and recycle all batteries, including a 95% target for industrial batteries by 2008.

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