The Need for a National Stewardship Program for Handheld Batteries

Handheld batteries have always played a vital role in our lives. They see usage in everything from hearing aids and power tools to the latest smartphones and laptops. But there always comes a time when a battery becomes completely devoid of charge and is no longer able to serve the purpose for which it has been built for. At such a time, used batteries are usually disposed of in the most unsafe manner either through landfills or smelters. This is especially the case in Australia, where 96% of used batteries are disposed of in landfills. Instead, if these used handheld batteries are recycled, many tons of valuable, non-renewable metals and plastics can be put back into production streams. Moreover, recycling used batteries can also keep many toxic metals away from polluting the environment through leakage and landfill leaching.

In comparison, the European Union (EU) member states are far more efficient when it comes to recycling used batteries. From as far back as in 1991, EU has sought to increase the recycling rates for used batteries from the 5% (which it was back then) to a more acceptable level. After a series of studies and subsequent directives getting passed, EU states now have to draft laws which comply with a strict recycling rate of at least 45% for all used batteries as per the 2006 Battery Directive. And most EU states do manage to either surpass this rate or are at least taking steps to ensure that this target is being reached. One of the biggest reasons for the EU’s success in the domain of recycling used household batteries is due to the laws that mandate battery manufactures, retailers and distributors to actively participate in the recycling process.

The EU has shown that by just having requirements as simple as preventing manufacturers from refusing to take back waste batteries, used handheld batteries see a much higher recycling rate. The EU Battery Directive also calls for member states to provide easily accessible used battery collection sites that operate free of charge to the public.  Moreover, by having fixed recycling percentages that need to be achieved, the EU has ensured that there is some degree of greater need and urgency in the matter of recycling because the number of used handheld batteries is only escalating on a yearly basis. And by having no resolute drive to counter this reality, used household batteries could one day in the near future become a real menace to the environment if incineration or landfill dumping is the only option left in store for them.

With this very sentiment in mind, a group of progressive battery manufacturers, retailers, distributors, recyclers, environmental and government bodies united together in 2008 and created the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI). The goal of this not-for-profit association is to promote environmentally friendly disposal standards for all used batteries. ABRI is also a strong advocate for the establishment of a National Product Stewardship Scheme. Product Stewardship is a concept which has been the cornerstone for the success of the EU’s used battery recycling directives. By this principle, battery manufacturers should be held accountable for the efficient disposal and recovery of used batteries and are also responsible in providing the consumers means for convenient used battery disposal.

While in recent years some inroads have been made to increasing the low 4% recycling rate for used handheld batteries in Australia, without any concrete legislation banning batteries to landfill and a national Product Stewardship Scheme, the recycling rates are not projected to rise and match EU standards. There are a few take-back programs in Australia, which offer similar free of charge services like those in the EU, but for the most part used household battery recycling is currently a relatively expensive process. Companies such as ReSourc however provide efficient and affordable recycling solutions for the majority of used household batteries in Australia and remain focused on providing a local solution to a local problem.