Battery definition changes to cost producers
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced that the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009 will be revised to define a ‘portable’ battery as one weighing less than four kilogrammes (kg).
Under the existing wording of the regulations, a ‘portable’ battery was one that ‘can be hand-carried by an average natural person without difficulty’. Those weighing less than 4kg were classed as portable, with those greater than 10kg classed as industrial, while the definition of batteries between 4-10kg varied depending on the characteristics of the specific battery.
Following a consultation originally launched in September 2013, Defra has now acted to remove this grey area by bringing the ‘industrial’ classification down to any battery weighing over 4kg. Batteries are also ‘industrial’ if they weigh under 4kg but are designed exclusively for industrial use.
As well as the weight limit, batteries defined as ’portable’ must also be sealed and be used neither as an automotive battery nor an industrial battery.
The change has been made after pressure on the UK from the European Commission to ‘clarify the situation’. According to a Defra impact assessment, ‘there would be a risk of the UK undergoing infraction proceedings for not complying fully with the environmental aims of the directive’ if changes were not made.
A 3kg limit for ‘portable’ batteries was originally proposed by Defra in 2013, but after an error was found in cost calculations in the subsequent consultation document, plans were revised. A second consultation followed in February this year suggesting the 4kg threshold.
Grey area led to skewed recycling data
Under the Europe-wide Batteries Directive, which passed into UK law in 2010, producers selling more than 32kg a year of portable batteries are obligated to take back used batteries from the public free-of-charge via one of the five UK compliance schemes.
By September 2012, the directive required collection rates of 25 per cent, with 45 per cent (around 30,000 tonnes) being collected by September 2016.
As the targets are weight-based, however, the existing ‘grey area’ definition of portable batteries has meant that the bulk of those being collected were heavier lead-based products.
Defra figures show that in 2012, lead-based batteries contributed only eight per cent of portable batteries placed on the market, yet made up 83 per cent of collected waste portable batteries – a return rate of 470 per cent. The department suspected that many of those batteries collected had been stored prior to the regulations being introduced.
Due to their high lead content (up to 70 per cent of lead-acid batteries contain reusable lead), compliance schemes could receive around £300 for a tonne of lead-acid batteries while having to pay to recycle other types. Indeed, in 2013 the UK sent fewer non-lead-acid batteries for recycling than it did in 2009, the year before the directive was brought into UK law.
As portable batteries are the only ones under obligation to be recycled, many heavy lead batteries falling in the grey area of 4-10kg have been considered ‘portable’ due to battery recyclers arguing that they cannot know the original use of every battery. Defra therefore hopes that clarifying the legal definition of a ‘portable’ battery will correct this skewed data and encourage the recycling of other batteries.
It has warned, however, that the change would lead to increased costs to producers from an average of £1,000 per tonne to £1,250 per tonne, while increased costs of collection and recycling could cost around £7.8 million over the next 10 years.
Explaining the anomaly in UK law and potential impacts of clarification last year, Michael Green, Special Projects Advisor at battery sorters G&P Batteries, told Resource: “The UK is the only member state that achieves its portable battery collection target in this way, by relying heavily on lead-acid batteries. Everybody else is doing it right.
“If the amount of lead-acid batteries being recycled drops the difference has to be made up with other types and the problem reduces.
“If a compliance scheme collects lead-acid batteries, producers get cheaper compliance. The UK collected 30 per cent of batteries placed on the market in 2013, but of that 12,000 tonnes that needed to be collected, 10,000 tonnes was lead-acid.”
View the updated guidance on the Environment Agency website and read Resource 78's assessment of the problems facing the recycling of batteries.