Charging up for the battery regulations

As the EU Batteries Directive powers into action, Steve Rogerson visits a specialist recycler to find out what opportunities and challenges the new legislation presents

The Government has done a good job with the new battery recycling regulations, but there is concern that some of the clauses are still open to interpretation and clarification is urgently needed if battery recyclers are going to start putting the legislation into operation. This is the view of G&P Batteries, the West Midlands based recycler that has spent the past year recovering from a fire at its premises that nearly put it out of business.

One element of the legislation that needs clarification is the specification that 50% of the weight of a battery should be recovered. The confusion lies in what that actually means in practice, and alkaline batteries are a good example of this. These are the small high-power batteries that are typically found in digital cameras and mini-disc players and if the legislation works the way it should many more of these will find their way to the recyclers.

But the problem with an alkaline battery starts with its size. There is not a lot of metal to recover. About 10% of the weight is the plastic and paper and 15% metallic, the combination of which forms the battery shell. Although the metal can be recovered, the paper and plastic is such a mixed-up mess that it has to be incinerated or sent to landfill.

“The other 75% is what we call ‘black mass’,” explains Greg Clementson, commercial director at G&P. “This is a mix of manganese, carbon and zinc. The black mass gets sent to one of a variety of plants in Europe that can recover the manganese and zinc, but not the carbon.”

However, the carbon is used in the process that recovers the manganese and zinc in that it acts as a calorific enhancer. Put simply, by producing its own heat as it burns, it reduces the amount of power that is needed to recover the zinc and manganese.

And here lies the difficulty. Because the carbon is actually being put to a useful purpose then it could be argued that it is being recycled even though there is no end product containing it. The question is does the carbon therefore fall within or outside of the 50% per cent recyclable target? This is important because a decision on this will affect which recycling processes end up being used.

“The EU has said it will define exactly what is included, so we are waiting for them to tell us,” says Clementson. “There are some processes that might not be relevant as a result of this. Everybody across Europe is waiting for the definition. We don’t know when this will happen but it should be some time this year.”

A volume problem
The other difficulty is that the legislation makes little or no recommendations as to education and publicity, leaving it in the hands of the individual battery compliance schemes that will be set up. The problem is that only about 4-5% of batteries are recycled at the moment and the Government has already set a target to double that to 10% in 2010 as a part of the road to hitting the European target of 25% in 2012.

“The compliance schemes will have to negotiate with the local authorities and other bodies to get enough bat-teries to make their targets,” explains Michael Green, G&P’s managing director. “The councils are under no obligation so it is likely that the compliance schemes will cover the council’s costs, which they might have to if they are to get the volume.”

The other difficulty is that if say a compliance scheme hits its target part way through the year, then it may slow down or stop collecting batteries from the councils. “The councils will have to be very careful with the contracts that they set up,” warns Green.

Most of the compliance schemes are likely to be existing schemes covering the WEEE regulations, and the early applicants fit that profile. This will make it easier to collect more batteries as it means those already involved with a WEEE scheme will not have to negotiate with a separate body. “It makes it easier if the WEEE scheme is also a battery scheme,” says Green. “If not, then there is a risk that their members will switch to a WEEE scheme that does do batteries.”

However, for the scheme to work in collecting the portable batteries that households use, effort will be needed to convince the public that batteries should be recycled. The legislation though is weak on this. “The Government has invited the compliance schemes to work together on marketing, and that is a big problem,” points out Green. “What we need is a unified message about why batteries should be recycled, and that message should be the same in Aberdeen as it is in Plymouth. If we have 30 different compliance schemes doing it themselves, then that will be a problem.”

He adds that if councils added batteries to their existing kerbside collections it would go a long way to solving the problem but acknowledges for some councils this would be difficult depending on their existing vehicles. What is needed, he says, is for the UK to follow some European countries by installing drop off bins for batteries. “In Europe, they have containers everywhere. They are in retailers, at bus stops, there is even one in the Sistine Chapel.”

Steve Rogerson is a freelance journalist

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