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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Positively charged? – Comment article in Parliament Magazine

Marking Green Week, Jean Lambert MEP wonders whether the political will exists to truly deliver a robust and effective EU-wide battery recycling system.

Five years ago, a change in European-wide legislation for the collection and recycling of batteries signalled new hope for the gradual removal of some of the most toxic substances found in batteries from the market place and called time upon the dumping of hundreds and thousands of used batteries in landfill sites across Europe.  A noticeable break from previous, inefficient legislation which had failed to adequately address the health and environmental risks posed by waste batteries, the battery directive sought to strengthen Europe’s transformation into a recycling society.  By creating a comprehensive framework for collection and recycling, it was hoped that the legislation would both help to protect the health of European citizens and contribute to making the consumption and production of batteries in the EU more sustainable.

Comprehensive legislation of this type was long due.  Prior to the 2006 directive, more than 45 per cent of all portable batteries in the EU, some 72,000 tonnes, were sent to landfill sites for incineration, each one capable of polluting one cubic metre of soil or 400 cubic metres of water.  Moreover, this flagrantly wasteful practice meant that Europe was standing idly by whilst thousands of tonnes of valuable secondary raw materials were being consigned to the dustbin – a truly shameful and unsustainable waste of vital resources.

Five years on and the directive is still a work in progress with Greece, the final member state to adopt the legislation, only coming on board in 2010.  With the first implementation report due in 2013, it’s not yet possible to see whether the ambition of a battery recycling Europe has been realised, but some countries are giving cause for hope.

Belgium, for example, has already met its 2012 recycling and collection targets by creating a network of over 20,000 battery recycling points across the country in schools, supermarkets, petrol stations and retail outlets.  The scheme is undoubtedly expensive – the price to recycle a battery in Belgium costs three times as much as the EU average – but its success cannot be questioned. The Netherlands is similarly on board, whilst Germany and Norway are calling for the original recycling targets to be raised even further ahead of the first 2012 deadline.

Unfortunately, for other countries, such as the UK, there is still quite a mountain to climb.  The directive requires that 25 per cent of portable batteries placed on the market each year are collected for recycling, rising to 45 per cent in 2016.  Recent figures show that the collection rate in the UK is estimated to be a mere three per cent. Perhaps even more disheartening are the results of a recent YouGov poll which reveals that nearly half of the people in the UK have never recycled a household battery, with a further 45 per cent of respondents claiming not to know where to take batteries for recycling, despite the rollout of thousands of battery recycling collection points across the country.

Whilst initially promising in scope and reach, the different approaches taken by member states in implementing the directive had led to an unsatisfactory, patchwork quilt effect, comprising of numerous standards and practices of varying quality.

Where is Europe to go from here if we are to achieve a truly robust and effective battery recycling system? First, given the length of time member states have had to transpose the directive into national legislation, the commission must not shy from pursuing stringent legal enforcement action where countries have failed to install effective measures to meet the 2012 target.  Member states have had ample time to make good progress, no matter what their initial starting point.

Second, batteries cannot be recycled without a good collection scheme in place.  A 2008 trial carried out by the UK’s waste and resources action programme found that kerbside collections were by far the most effective way of collection spent batteries for recycling, with retail take-back schemes and community drop off points far less likely to collect the amount of batteries necessary to meet the 2012 or 2016 collection targets.  Such examples of best practice must be shared and used.

Finally, Europe must be more ambitious in eradicating the highly toxic metal cadmium, by far the most problematic of hazardous substances found in batteries. Whilst the agreement in the directive on a general phase out of cadmium is to be welcomed, the inclusion of a derogation from the phase for the use of cadmium in accumulators for power tools, which accounts for over two-thirds of cadmium battery use, adds a sour note. Europe must grasp with both hands the opportunity to scrap this derogation which is now under review.

Europe can have sustainable and well balanced legislation to eradicate the truly harmful risks posed by spent cells as well as an effective system for the collection and recycling of batteries alongside ambitious targets.  The review of the directive offers us the possibility to make progress.  Will member states be able to summon up the political will?