Battery recycling: Some positives and negatives

Here in the UK we are playing catch up with battery recycling. By signing up to the EU Battery Directive we committed to collect 25% of used “portable” batteries (e.g. in your remote control, mobile phone or watch) by the end of 2012. The fact that we were only achieving 3% in 2009 demonstrates the scale of the challenge.

As a result of the directive, large battery producers now have to pay for waste battery collection and treatment. Furthermore, any shop selling the equivalent of one 4-pack of AA batteries a day needs to offer in store collection points for customers.

Extending this network of collection points has been central to increasing waste battery collection rates. Battery bins now appear in libraries and pubs (the picture of the bin, and royal endorsement!, on the right was taken at my local). As a result, an interim collection target of 18% by March 2012 was only narrowly missed (17.8%).

However you need to be quite motivated to take your old batteries with you when you pop out to the shops, library or pub. If you’ve remembered to take them, you then need to find the bin which is not, as in the case of my local WH Smith, always prominently placed. It can be argued that the (impressive) increase of the last couple of years has been achieved from those informed and motivated people who were most predisposed to take action.

If participation rates do flatten, in order to meet the 2012 collection target (and the 2016 target of 45%) we will need to encourage and support those who may be less willing to act on this issue. To achieve that, the process of battery collection needs to be made easier.

This represents an opportunity for local authorities. Although they do not have obligations under current regulations, the financial obligations on battery manufacturers provide a potential source of funding for local authorities to provide a batteries collection service for residents.

WRAP’s three-year battery collection trials suggested that council-operated kerbside schemes are the most cost-effective way to collect household batteries. After a successful pilot (collecting 220kg of batteries in 3 weeks from 12,500 households) Bedford Borough Council has now made kerbside battery collections available for all. Residents are provided with bags to be filled with used batteries and left on top of wheelie bins or sacks on the normal day of collection. The bags are then collected and replaced by the collection crews.

However at present only a few local authorities offer this service, even if costs can be borne by battery producers, and most rely on promotion to encourage us to take our batteries to a recycling centre or collection point.

I believe that as well as putting the onus onto us to carry our used batteries around with us in search of a collection point, local authorities should lead by example and offer to collect. In behaviour change terms this is not only easy for residents, the behaviour is “normalised” as it is visible to others on the street, thus prompting more people to participate and diverting more batteries, and their hazardous heavy metals, from entering landfill.

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