How should battery recycling be calculated?

Europe only recycles 6% of its batteries annually, but should be aiming for 50%, says a battery recycling lobby group. While three European countries have a 60% collection rate for used batteries, six EU Member States collect fewer than 5% of batteries consumed in their countries. But another leading industry group says collection targets can be misleading, because rechargeable batteries have longer life cycles than primary ones, and recycling is often done within the metals industry.

If EU countries could agree on a European target of 50% of batteries recycled compared to the total number sold, the European Battery Recycling Association would be more than satisfied, Emmanuel Beaurepaire of EBRA told edie.

Recycling rates are often quoted as a percentage of batteries collected, but should ideally be based on the total number of batteries produced and sold, says Beaurepaire. Because of this, collection rates are currently the most important indicator of the fate of batteries, he says.

Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland collect more than 60% of batteries consumed over a five-year period, says Beaurepaire, while Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy, Ireland and the UK have collection rates below 5%. Belgium distributes plastic bags through mailboxes to encourage the return of used batteries. Countries like the UK have no organised system of collection, particularly for rechargeable batteries, says Beaurepaire.

However, EBRA figures are disputed by other industry groups. The European Portable Battery Association, which represents portable battery manufacturers and distributors, says information on battery collection and recycling is often difficult to obtain, and can be misrepresented.

“As there is no volume pressure for used batteries, unlike bottles or paper, people tend to keep the batteries at several places in their homes,” Alfons Westgeest, Secretary-General of EPBA told edie. The hoarding effect, along with the different life cycles of primary and rechargeable batteries, means there is no direct correlation between the amount of batteries sold and batteries available for collection and recycling, he says.

Recycling rates can also be complicated by the different ways of disposing of an end-of-life battery. One of the ways that batteries are recovered is within the metal industries, and this is not included in the EBRA figures, says Westgeest.

For example, German collection rates via municipalities have recently dropped from 47% to 27%, but there has been a concomitant rise in collection through trade and industry. “The explanation is simple: people who want to bring back spent batteries use their daily way to the trade or workplace to dispose of spent batteries because it is more convenient,” says Westgeest.

Earlier this year, Jean-Paul Wiaux of the industry lobby group CollectNiCad said that consumers were buying more cordless appliances whilst continuing to be ignorant of the varieties and recycling requirements of batteries sold on the market.

A survey of 1,000 households in four countries found an average of four to five cordless appliances per home. Camcorders, walkmans, dustbusters and shavers were amongst the most popular products. But the survey found only 28% of respondents took their used batteries to a collection site for recycling, although a further 62% said they would be willing to, particularly if nearby collection points were made available or money was paid to return them.

According to the survey, the biggest barriers to returning batteries were distance to a collection site, no cash-back incentives and no information on where or how to dispose of the batteries. Trends also vary with age-group, says EPBA. “Young people who use batteries at a high rate and who are well educated about the benefits are more likely to bring the spent batteries to collection points,” says Westgeest.

Because of the hoarding effect and the life spans of different batteries, recycling targets should be calculated based on the available collected batteries and not on batteries sold the same year, concludes Westgeest.

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