Batteries: moving the agenda forward

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CWS: What would you consider as your early priorities in the role?

LC: I think it’s pretty clear that batteries are an ever- increasing part of our lives. They’re in our phones, cameras, hearing aids, watches, toys, tools and cross over our private and professional worlds. Depending on the battery type it can contain different toxins, cause hazards to children and/or be vulnerable to combustion.

For me, I think it’s a great time to enter this role because the landscape is changing and batteries are a crucial issue in responsible waste management in general. In many ways I find it incredible that, in this day and age, even when we know batteries are toxic, the majority of them still end up in landfill. Only four to five percent are being reprocessed responsibly in Australia with 60 percent being disposed to landfill; we need to flip those figures around.

We also have the continuing issue that a small percentage of batteries are being exported illegally – to developing countries that don’t have the infrastructure to protect workers and communities. This is irresponsible, given Australia has committed to the Basel Convention and has the resources to act as a leader in this important arena.

It’s exciting to see that, within Australia, attention is now converging with a view to establishing the way forward for more responsible recovery. The Government has identified batteries as a priority product for the Product Stewardship Act, we have battery brands working together and ABRI (Australian Battery Recycling Initiative) is providing a coordinating role to help key stakeholders understand the market, evaluate the costs and assess the viability of alternative options.

The goal in these early days is to move the agenda forward and facilitate shared responsibility for batteries at end-of-life. Some people think progress has been slow, but the pilots being conducted by the Battery Implementation Working Group are providing important groundwork. In addition to that, government is interested and brands are at the table with recyclers.

We are all talking about how to create something that will be effective and sustainable. Action is needed, but it must be done in a way so that brands, recyclers and government can see the benefit and the value of moving forward. We are drawing on the information arising from the pilot programs to shape future stewardship models. The pilots clearly indicate that the community is ready and waiting for battery recycling options, and it is our responsibility to meet that demand.

You’ve been based in the US for the past 15 years, has that physical distance given you any particular insights?

It’s certainly given me a good understanding of the international framework in which we’re operating. I have seen what the issues are in terms of international law and have gained an appreciation of the health and safety risks associated with managing this problematic waste stream at the recycling end of things. I have had firsthand experience with the very real risks to workers and recyclers who need to be protected when they are reprocessing this material. I also see that we need to shift people’s behaviour – as individuals and as organisations – to understand that the safest way to manage spent batteries is not to stockpile them, but to demand responsible disposal options.

What particular aspects of your background will you be drawing on the most?

Facilitating shared outcomes is an important part of the way I operate. We need to harness key stakeholders, recognising the value of all viewpoints, so that we can design practical solutions that can pass the test of time and adapt to changing circumstances.

Since leaving Australia, I have established a niche in e-stewardship. I have worked with many recyclers to design management systems that achieve best practice in environment, safety and e-waste handling and transparency. I remain actively involved with the Green Electronics Council, where we regularly validate standards implementation and interpretation. The Green Electronics Registry (EPEAT) has been established to deliver best practice across the life cycle of a product, and provide large purchasers of electronics with guidance on where to buy more sustainable products.

Since 2008, I have been very involved with the e-stewards program in the US – training auditors, implementing requirements and more recently supporting the Basel Action Network to revise the e-Stewards Standard. Together, these experiences have allowed me to understand the implications of balancing different viewpoints, establishing clear requirements and also the difficulty of conforming to outdated language. Whether we are leading the way with standards, guidance or legislation, it is critical that it is written in such a way it can be practically implemented. What we don’t want is requirements that are unclear, impractical or impossible to implement.

It’s very important to start with the outcome that the requirement or law is looking for and draft the language to reflect that – in plain language, not legalese. It’s also important to provide guidance to recyclers so they can do the same thing for their workers. Workers don’t need a raft of long-winded documents or procedures; it is much more effective to provide them with visual and succinct guidance that easily communicates what needs to be done, right at the place where the battery handling is being conducted.

We are also looking at experience from overseas – Call2Recycle in Canada and the US is an example. One of the things that came out of this program is that recovery rates are not the only objective – providing equitable access to recycling infrastructure is also key.

Like Australia, both Canada and the US are big countries and so creating the infrastructure is an issue; the US has a larger population, so that makes it a bit more straightforward. But we must get our economies of scale right, so that any scheme is affordable but also accessible. We have much to draw from here too with MobileMuster, Planet Ark and the BatteryBack projects.

Infinite alkaline batteries

Are there learnings yet from the various pilot schemes in Queensland, such as the power tool trial and the initiative in Toowoomba?

These findings are still very new, but what was interesting about both of the studies was the degree to which consumers were interested and willing to participate. I think it brought home that this issue is relevant to everyone and it is time to get a national solution in place.

Where are we at?

It is clear we are at the forefront of designing viable reprocessing infrastructure, and consistent drop-off locations around the country. Schemes such as BatteryBack and the work of Planet Ark are providing good groundwork in the design process. This knowledge, combined with the pilots being conducted by the Battery Implementation Working Group, is providing much needed information about how to achieve consumer participation, and understand the battery market and required infrastructure. It’s clearly time to bring everyone together to successfully change the landscape.

The pilot programs definitely put the spotlight on the free-rider issue. Not all battery brands are participating in this process. It’s important for us to understand that, so we can address it. It’s also important to have the battery brands at the table, but it is not always easy to identify who they are – some batteries are embedded within products or don’t have a brand label. That means we have to recognise that some form of free-riding is likely to continue to a degree. Whatever solution we design, it must address those challenges.

Is there such a thing as too much consultation?

Consultation needs to be very clearly defined. It’s critical to set expectations early as to what you’re trying to achieve, establish clear ground rules within that process and provide a good structure that stakeholders can respond to in order to design effective solutions.
I have found this approach to be very effective and I find it delivers outcomes. Not only do we need targeted standards and regulations, we also need well-designed infrastructure, education and marketing in order to create an effective network to capture the 95 percent
of batteries that remain in a potentially toxic, unstable state in the environment. Ultimately, we also need to be working with battery brands to design and labelling for environment, so that we reduce potential releases of toxins and put a high priority on safe responsible battery recovery.

This article also appears in Issue 5 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.

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