Australians have an enormous appetite for batteries; chances are you’ve used several today without even thinking about them – the smoke alarms at home, in your mobile phone, that electric toothbrush, in the car.
According to Sustainability Victoria figures, each year Australians use around 10,000 tonnes of domestic batteries. Of those, around 70 percent are single-use, but there is an enormous range of batteries in the market, each with their own needs and requirements for recycling. Who then would blame the average consumer when most used batteries end up in landfill?
But associations, retailers, waste management companies and entrepreneurs are continuing to identify ways of deriving value from used batteries. Given that less than three percent of all batteries purchased
in Australia are currently recycled, there is a lot of potential feedstock on offer.
As usage remains high and recycling low, it seems remarkable that mandatory product stewardship hasn’t come into force.
Environmental consultant and head of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI), Helen Lewis says batteries have been on the priority list for the national Product Stewardship Act for several years, but progress has been slow. Challenges include the sheer number and variety of battery types and the range of companies that need to be engaged.
ABRI has been spending a considerable amount of time working on industry engagement to develop a voluntary recycling program for handheld batteries, with a goal of submitting a plan to state and federal environment ministers by the end of this year.
There has been progress – the Queensland Department of the Environment and Heritage Protection and the Battery Industry Working Group (BIWG) have funded a pilot program running in Toowoomba until early September. Called the Toowoomba Rechargeable BATTERYback Trial, it covers all rechargeable batteries up to five kilograms and includes standard batteries such as AA, AAA, C and D sizes, plus batteries used in power tools, computers and mobile phones, among other varieties. But the main thrust of the program is to collect data to assist with the design of future national voluntary schemes. ABRI is involved in the implementation of the trial along with Infoactiv, MRI and Planet Ark.
“The focus is on rechargeable batteries because the feedback from some companies was that we should start with these because they are the most hazardous,” Lewis says. “I think most ABRI members would like to see an all-battery program, for many reasons, but not least of which it’s very convenient for consumers who aren’t willing or able to separate rechargeable from single-use batteries.”
Lewis says she’s heartened by the number of battery manufacturers participating in the working group. “We’re making good progress with a few companies actively involved or keeping a close watch on developments, but there’s no doubt that, in a process like this, some companies will sit back and wait to see what happens.”
Some of the major brands and retailers actively involved include Energizer, Panasonic, Officeworks, Battery World, Canon and Bosch. Lewis says there are some gaps, for example in the power tool sector, but she is confident that organisations there will come on board. “This is a challenging process; there are so many different products with batteries in them – we need to do a brand audit, just to see who we need to get engaged.”
Unsurprisingly, a critical question for battery companies is the cost of any projected national scheme. “That’s a question we can’t answer yet,” Lewis admits. “But we’ll know a lot more after this pilot program.”
ABRI says there’s a strong argument that it is beneficial for the industry to start its product stewardship program on a voluntary basis. “We need to design a program that works and that is cost-effective,” Lewis says. “It’s something where starting slowly and learning as we go is a better way forward than being fully legislated and having to meet arbitrary targets early in the process.
“We’ve taken note of what’s happened overseas. The Call2Recycle program in the US is mostly voluntary and entirely funded by the brands. All the major brands are involved. This is a model we’ve looked closely at, and they’ve also been helping us with data.”
In the US, Energizer has released a battery made from four percent recycled content. “That might not sound like much and there was some scepticism in the market when the product came out that it was just a bit of a greenwash, but it represents an important innovation in closed loop battery recycling that will hopefully lead to stronger markets for alkaline batteries in particular,” says Lewis.
She adds that the Meeting of Environment Ministers has given the industry the strong impression it is keen to support a voluntary process. “But some governments will be looking at regulation if it doesn’t work.”
A lot is riding on the Toowoomba pilot. “We need to gain an understanding of the operational issues, working with retailers and councils, and take advantage of the learnings from overseas programs, as well as other Australian programs like what’s in place for e-waste.”
The retailer’s perspective
Lok-Man Shu, national sustainability manager for Officeworks says he welcomes the trial scheme. “The current trials are being implemented to establish whether the end customer can differentiate between single-use and rechargeable batteries, as well as to better understand the cost of recycling batteries to determine the viability of a voluntary scheme.”
Will the industry fund a collection and recycling program? “That depends on the results of the trial. There will be more insight into the viability of an industry-funded program,” he says. “The main challenges I see are the willingness of consumers to differentiate between types of batteries, and how free riders (the companies not paying for battery recycling) are captured within any scheme to reduce the burden on companies doing the right thing.
“Free riders are always problematic because they can alter the financial sustainability of a product stewardship program. I would like to see a level playing field where all battery brands contribute towards the stewardship of their products.”
Shu echoes the industry’s preference for a voluntary scheme. “If government wanted to pursue legislation, then Officeworks would prefer to see integration with the existing schemes, such as the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme. Like a lot of other brands and retailers, Officeworks is already captured in the scheme, so this would seem the most logical and efficient means to legislate.
“Officeworks has a range of successful product stewardship programs in place. I believe that most people want to do the right thing if you make it easy enough for them to do so. The key to our successful programs is making it simple for the end user and ensuring the financial viability of the programs.
“In the case of batteries, Officeworks would like to see the trials progress quickly so we can determine if a voluntary scheme is viable. If not, we would like to see government pursue other options.”