Recycling Batteries

The report ‘Analysis of battery consumption, recycling and disposal in Australia’, by Australian Battery Recycling Initiative and Warnken Industrial and Social Ecology Pry Ltd is a seminal publication on batteries in Australia. Before this report was produced very little was known about the amount and type of battery used in Australia and how they are disposed.

This is very unusual because, as stated in the opening line in the report, ‘Batteries are integral to the functioning of our economy and support many aspects of modern lifestyles’ (page i).

The report includes some shocking statistics and raises many major challenges for improving reuse and recycling of batteries and in particular industry stewardship schemes.

The failure to have properly document the use of batteries in Australia until 2010 shows a major flaw in how many new battery-related technologies develop, in particular those that rely on handheld batteries. It seems that we fall in love with many modern gadgets but like the ‘love-stuck’ we take some years before rational thoughts kick in and we look at the effects of our ‘affair’.

If you use batteries, chances are that your car battery and most other lead acid batteries will be reprocessed, but virtually all other batteries you use in your mobile phone, mobile computer, torch or clock will be dumped into landfill.

And the major conundrum faced by industry in assessing how to improve reuse and recycling of handheld batteries, is that while they amount to 90% of the all batteries consumed by number they are only 10% of batteries consumed by weigh.  Collecting enough of these small/light batteries to make it financially beneficial is very difficult. 

A similar break down of the estimated inputs, stocks and flows (waste arisings) of batteries for Australia by weight is presented in the table below.

From this analysis it is estimated that approximately 350 million batteries are consumed annually in Australia, either as stand alone batteries or embedded in products such as mobile phones and automobiles. The majority of these batteries on a count basis (98%) were ‘Handheld’ batteries, in other words, batteries less than 1 kg in weight. However, the weight of all battery inputs into Australia was more that 150 million kilograms (150,000 tonnes) and Handheld batteries were only approximately 10 per cent of this total.

Note: Battery inputs are the consumption of batteries; stocks are those batteries in service within the economy; and arsings are batteries that have reached the end of their service life.

Handheld batteries

One major factor which limits the recycling of batteries in Australia is that ‘All Handheld batteries are imported as there is no local production of the original battery’. Other factors are:

-           the numerous size/end use of batteries: which include. AAA, AA, 9v, C, D, Other size, Lantern, Mobile, Digital Device, Laptop, Cordless Power Tools, Sealed Lead Acid;

-          the numerous types of chemistry: Alkaline, Carbon Zinc, Lithium, Nickel Metal Hydride, Nickel Cadmium, Lead Acid (SLAB) Other (ZA, SO, ZC).

‘The battery sizes AA and AAA account for the greatest number of Handheld inputs with an estimated 147.7 million and 98.7 million batteries respectively sold for a combined share of 72 per cent of Handheld battery inputs by count.’

‘Alkaline chemistry is the dominate form of handheld battery inputs on a count basis and on a weight basis. Alkaline accounted for 57 per cent of Handheld battery inputs (198 million) on a count basis and 57 per cent (9,248 tonnes) on a weight basis.’

Resource recovery of batteries

The Resource recovery of battery arisings is dominated by lead acid batteries which make up virtually the entirety of Australian battery reprocessing. The estimated 100,500 tonnes of lead acid battery reprocessing is approximately 75 per cent of all battery arisings and 82% of all lead acid battery arisings.’

‘This shows that reprocessing of batteries, legal export and formal stockpiles only account for 6 per cent of all battery arisings on a count basis.’

‘However, on a count basis landfill of batteries accounts for nearly 70 per cent of all batteries.’

‘This suggest that two-thirds of non-lead acid battery arisings are ending up in landfill and nearly one-quarter of arisings being stockpiled informally (in other words, temporarily ‘landfilled’ in household and office cupboards and drawers.’ On a count basis, this equates to approximately 250 million batteries.’

Now for the good, or potentially good news.

The Australian Government has published its priority list of products to be considered for accreditation or regulation under the Product Stewardship Act.

The priority list for 2014-15 is almost the same as the previous year’s list:

- Waste architectural and decorative paint
- End-of-life batteries
- Packaging (and subsets of packaging, such as consumer packaging and beverage packaging)
- End-of-life air conditioners with small gas charges
- End-of-life refrigerators with small gas charges.

Note: The 2013-2014 list included ‘End-of-life batteries less than 2kg’. Consideration of possible product stewardship approaches by the Battery Implementation Working Group has expanded the scope to ‘End-of-life batteries less than 5kg’ and this class of products is listed for 2014-2015.