The positive power of battery recycling in the UK

In the UK we dispose of over 600 million batteries to landfill every year, a statistic that government is keen to see greatly reduced through the development and introduction of easier and more environmentally sound methods of dealing with waste batteries. Chris Davey, manager for local authority relations at WRAP, tells edie about the issues.

The EU Battery Directive has pushed battery recycling higher up the political agenda and will continue to do so long after it is transposed into UK law in 2008.

Intended to reduce the environmental impact of batteries, the Directive will divert batteries from landfill and increase recovery of the materials they contain. This will be achieved through the tough targets and responsibilities it will impose.

Published in September 2006, the Directive sets collection targets of 25% of portable batteries by 2012 rising to 45% by September 2016. When transposed into UK law it will require companies that produce, import or sell batteries to take responsibility for the cost of collecting and recycling them.

Current recycling rates

The UK currently recycles a very small proportion of its portable batteries. A few local authorities are collecting batteries for recycling and a number of other trial schemes are being developed. The UK is way behind some of our European neighbours with a collection rate of about 2%, compared to 14% in Spain and 59% in Belgium (2002 figures).

Public attitudes, evidenced by extensive market research carried out by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), indicate that there is a clear appetite for battery recycling if the correct opportunity is provided. Significantly, nine out of 10 people (92%) questioned said they would be encouraged to recycle their batteries if they were collected from home and 85% said they would be encouraged to recycle their unwanted batteries if they knew where to take them.

So, the public appetite to recycle batteries is clear and WRAP is working to make this a reality.

A valuable material steam

If batteries are collected for recycling the metals they contain can be recycled as a secondary raw material for a range of different purposes, including more batteries and steel production. There are a number of different recycling processes for batteries depending on the type (chemistry) of sorted batteries. For example:

  • zinc-carbon/air and alkaline-manganese batteries can be reprocessed using a number of different methods, which include smelting and other thermal-metallurgical processes to recover the metal content (particularly zinc and ferro-manganese);
  • lead (from small sealed gel filled lead acid batteries) can be recovered by separating the different materials that make up the battery (lead plates, plastic casing and acid) prior to metallurgical processing; and
  • nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are reprocessed by mechanically separating the individual components to produce a material with a high nickel content that can be used in the manufacture of stainless steel.

    Battery recycling – which way forward for the UK?

    In order to prepare for the implementation of the EU Batteries Directive into UK law, WRAP is trialling a range of collection schemes to assess their cost and effectiveness.

    The results will contribute to government thinking on how best to transpose the Directive in to UK law and will ultimately lead to the development of a national infrastructure for the collection, consolidation, sorting and recycling of used batteries across the UK

    Many partner organisations are working with WRAP in order to develop a cost effective, long-term solution and to promote behavioural change around the disposal of batteries.

    Since early 2006, WRAP has been working with local authorities, community groups, social enterprises, retailers and the Royal Mail to implement trials that will run until March 2008.

    All types of batteries, whether single use or rechargeable, including AAA and AA cells, C and D sized batteries, button batteries, mobile phone and laptop batteries, are accepted in the trial. The only caveat is car and other similar vehicle batteries which are not included, however 90% of these types of batteries are already recycled.

    The trials will assess four different collection methods.

    Kerbside trials

    The kerbside trials commenced in April 2006 and cover over 350,000 households in a mixture of high-rise, urban and rural areas across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The schemes vary greatly in terms of the number and types of households and geographical areas covered, ranging from very rural parts of Scotland to urban areas of Merseyside.

    Householders in the trial areas received a dedicated collection container for their batteries (either a set of sealable polythene bags or a small cardboard box) into which they can put all their waste batteries and then simply put the box or bag out for collection in their kerbside box along with other materials collected for recycling on the designated day.

    Retail take-back

    Launched in October 2006 this trial will assess the effectiveness of asking the public to take their used batteries back to participating shops and dropping then into the new battery collection containers.

    Support for the retail take-back schemes was secured from leading chains: Argos, B&Q, Currys,, Homebase, PC World and Tesco. Trials are taking place at 33 selected stores in England, Wales and Scotland (which will be launched in early 2007).

    Community drop-off

    Community drop-off trials are being developed and will be launched in three local authority areas during early 2007.

    These schemes will encourage local residents to take their used batteries to special battery collection points, located close to existing recycling facilities or in other locations such as sports centres, libraries and important local employers.

    Postal trials

    In order to include rural communities new postal trials are proposed in partnership with Royal Mail.

    WRAP is working with Cumbria County Council, Eden District Council and Dumfries & Galloway Council to deliver the UK’s first postal battery-only recycling trials. Residents in the trial areas will be sent pre-paid recycling envelopes to enable them to send back their used batteries for recycling free of charge.

    Future Strategy

    Collectively, results from these trials will help inform the Government, enabling it to identify the most effective long-term battery collection strategy for the UK, equipping it to successfully meet, and ultimately exceed, the EU’s targets.

    Further information about the battery recycling trials and associated research can be found on the WRAP website.

  • Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie