Batteries - A positive charge forwards

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As the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive completes its first year of implementation in the UK with criticism levelled at the way it was implemented - the Batteries Directive waits in the wings, ready for its introduction later this year. Here Vince Armitage, divisional vice-president, Varta Consumer Batteries UK (right), introduces the new directive and highlights what is happening in other European countries, while outlining how the experiences of WEEE could help make the Batteries Directive a success in the UK and across Europe

With less than 100 days until the proposed implementation, it seems the Batteries Directive is still below the radar of the majority of UK manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
With parallels between the two pieces of legislation, it was expected that experiences of WEEE would be utilised to ensure a smooth roll-out of the Batteries Directive.

For the uninitiated, the Batteries Directive was actually transposed into the EU in 1991, restricting the use of mercury in most batteries. The directive also encouraged collection and recycling but, nearly 20 years after its introduction, the objectives of this legislation were not being achieved and portable batteries were still being disposed of in landfill. Therefore, a new Batteries Directive will come into force across Europe on 26 September 2008, replacing the existing piece of legislation, although no UK implementation date has been announced as yet.

Affecting all batteries placed on the market after 25 September 2008, the directive brings many key changes including a ban on most NiCad-batteries,   excluding items such as power tools and emergency lighting. The legislation also brings the requirement that all batteries must carry a symbol of a ‘crossed-out dustbin' indicating that the end of life material should not be simply thrown away. 

European-wide recycling targets have also been laid out, with 25 per cent of portable batteries having to be recycled by 2010, rising to 45 per cent by 2016. This is positive news and with improvements in recycling processes and techniques, it now means that almost 90 per cent of all batteries collected (by weight) can be recycled into useful by-products.
So what is the current status of the directive across Europe? As already mentioned, the UK is making positive steps towards implementation although no clear date has been outlined for the directive to be transposed into the UK legal framework. In other European countries, there is also still work to be done. France, for example, is labouring over a number of key issues which are holding up its adoption of the directive. The French are also out of kilter with the rest of the EU in proposing the incorporation of a ‘stealth fee' into the pricing of batteries to cover the cost of collecting and recycling.

The directive becoming law in Italy has been held up by governmental elections but the Italians envisage that this will be resolved by November. Another problem the Italians might face is the fact they have a very small number of recycling facilities in the country. This might mean a stockpile of end of life units is created, especially if the directive tightens rules about shipping waste across borders.

Romania expects the implementation in their country to be late. Like Italy, they are going through changes in government and are still discussing the implementation of the directive. Interestingly, the Swiss, even though they are not actually part of the EU and have no obligation to transpose the Batteries Directive, will still adopt the major points of the Directive into their legislative framework. It is thought that this adoption will not happen until mid 2009 at the earliest.

For other European countries, it's full steam ahead with some nations wanting to go as far as increasing the 2010 and 2016 recycling targets set out in the directive. Leading the pack is Belgium which is already achieving its targeted recycling rates and collection. This success is being achieved through a network of 20,000 collection points in schools, supermarkets, petrol stations, retail outlets and civic amenity sites which serves a population of 10 million people.

While its success cannot be questioned, the Belgium system does come at a cost and is the most expensive recycling model in Europe. It's envisaged that the average recycling cost across the continent will be 3.9 pence per battery; in Belgium it is currently more than two and a half times that at 9.9 pence. Such a high toll may deter other nations from following the Belgian system.

The Netherlands - seen as environmental visionaries and often two steps ahead of the rest of Europe when it comes to environmental legislation and the fore-fathers of the WEEE Directive - are, as one might expect, already up and running. Elsewhere, the Germans and Norwegians are also calling for the targets laid out in the directive to be raised even further for their respective countries.

While both are geared up to meet the introduction of the directive, both are calling for tougher targets. Germany wants the first recycling target to be raised from 25% to 35%, while Norway wants to see the targets in later years increased to 60% in 2012 and 70% by 2016.

Meanwhile, Spain is the only country, so far, to fully ratify the directive, while Turkey is in the position of having no producers, only importers. Finally, Finland, Hungry and Poland complete a mixed bag of status, with all three nations reporting few problems ahead of implementation and all expect things to roll out on time.

So what have WEEE learnt?
It must be said that it is unusual for wide reaching environmental legislation, such as the Batteries Directive and WEEE, to come into force so close together. Therefore the introduction of WEEE has been watched intently by the battery industry, keen to learn and capitalise on the experiences of the sector and those WEEE-obligated companies. But with the clock ticking until the implementation deadline, it seems that perhaps a number of lessons have not yet been taken on board.

One of the main frustrations levelled at the WEEE Directive has been around a lack of communication. Of course, with any new directive there will be an amount of confusion and areas which need further clarification. So far, it looks as if history might be repeating itself as information and clarification for those obligated by the new regulations has been poor. Organisations need more help in understanding how they can play their part. Nobody likes change but if they are guided and armed with the facts then the process is much easier with greater buy-in. This can be simply achieved by better communication around the directive, both for those organisations obligated and the end-users.

Other parts of the directive still need to be confirmed with uncertainty still around a number of other significant areas. The definition of producer is still to be fully defined, with the industry calling for further clarification around whom and what is classed as a producer. Much like the WEEE Directive, it is the producer - the party who places the batteries on the market - who is obligated under the directive. Although there is still some confusion around this topic - at present it's the manufacturer, importer of the product or private label owner which is considered a producer.

This role applies whether they place it on the market directly themselves, or if products reach the market through a third party partner such as a wholesaler, OEM or retailer. The registration process for producers is still far from perfect and again, organisations are waiting for guidance to ensure they are complying correctly.
Another parallel between the two directives is around the interpretation of the law. While the Batteries Directive is a Europe-wide law, there will be many interpretations of what it means at a local level. This is due to market variations and specific country laws and practices. This different 'in country' approach and interpretation could mean that results may well differ from nation to nation when it comes to measuring success. If local laws mean that the number of units in the market are recorded in different ways then results will be skewed, giving some nations an advantage over others when striving to achieve the recycling rates set out in the new directive.

Grass roots inconsistency across countries might cause problems in the long run. It could dilute the effectiveness and impact of the directive, while causing confusion for organisations that operate across multiple European borders.

Corralling the cowboys
Another issue that it is hoped the Batteries Directive will help bring to the fore is the standard of quality and safety of the batteries being imported into the UK. Even though the majority of products being brought into the country do comply, there are some batteries that do not. These often come from the Far East, where legislation on composition and manufacturing are much less stringent resulting in inferior construction and harmful chemicals being used.  These batteries offer poor performance which is masked from consumers through cheap prices. This creates a false economy - a vicious circle which reinforces the current throw away mentality.

End users are buying a product which will not deliver what they need but they will view this as the norm due to the cheaper price of the product. This means more poor batteries are bought and then discarded, left to leak their harmful toxins into the environment. It is hoped the Battery Directive will highlight this problem across the industry and those pedalling inferior products will be brought under control and eventually phased out. It is also hoped that end users will be educated about the benefits of buying better quality or better performing batteries. This alone would considerably reduce the levels of battery waste each year.

With not long to go until the Europe-wide implementation date, there are a number of areas which still have to be firmed up but the industry is working towards this on a daily basis. For instance, the measurement of batteries placed on the market and, as a result, battery collection targets are two very important areas which have recently been clarified. These targets will now be set on the basis that each country will calculate the annual sales of portable batteries and accumulators distributed to end-users, as the weight of them, placed on the market, during that year. This method will of course exclude any that have been exported during that year.

So, while some might look at the directive as more red tape and a burden, it should be viewed as a positive step. The majority of hard work has already been done and there are huge positives moving forward. Such directives give the industry and related sectors the opportunity to look at themselves and make positive changes. New laws should also be viewed by those organisations obligated by the changes as a chance to innovate and develop new products for the good of the end user.

All we need is one more, final, concerted push by everyone concerned - whether it's those classed as producers, manufacturers, the legislators or the end-users - to make the directive as effective and successful as it can be. Roll on implementation!"