Recharging the conversation: battery recycling

Stakeholders are continuing to progress battery recycling outcomes in Australia, but just what is the optimal legislative outcome to lift the nation’s low recovery rate?

Australia has a low recovery rate for handheld batteries, so much so that it lags behind 28 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

The alarming figure is highlighted in a 2017 working paper, Achieving battery stewardship in Australia – by the battery industry recycling advocacy group Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI). While 2018 are not published, a 2014 trend analysis and market assessment report, prepared on behalf of the National Environment Protection Council Service Corporation, found that less than three per cent of handheld batteries are recycled. Formed in 2008, the not-for-profit association is backed by battery manufacturers, consumer electronics suppliers, recyclers, government agencies and environmental organisations.

The sense of urgency for a national scheme is compounded by a 2015 Blue Environment report Hazardous waste infrastructure needs and capacity assessment, which shows lithium-ion batteries in the waste stream will grow by 300 per cent each year by 2036. The result will mean battery generation of between 100,000 and 187,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to the weight of the Sydney Opera House.

Further to this is the safety risk to the community through improper disposal to landfill and material flammability through the release of toxins into the atmosphere.

Batteries contain a variety of toxic chemicals, including nickel, cadmium, alkaline, mercury, nickel-metal hydride and lead-acid.

In landfill, these items have the capacity to cause soil and water pollution.

While toxic materials such as cadmium and mercury are being phased out, it may take decades before they are completely out of the waste stream, according to the ABRI.

The health and environmental effects are put into perspective when considering our reliance on exports. The only batteries that are currently being recycled locally on a mass scale are lead-acid batteries used in cars. Most batteries are sent to landfills or offshore for processing.

Envirostream is one company recycling batteries locally, as momentum slowly builds. Companies such as MRI e-cycle solutions and Sims Metal Management are also recycling batteries, while other organisations offer pick-up services.

Restrictions on the international transportation of lithium ion batteries by air were also introduced by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016, a clamp down which may work in favour of local recycling.

Fortunately, there are opportunities. The Battery Industry Working Group, which includes some of Australia’s leading battery manufacturers (such as Energizer and Robert Bosch), is exploring options for establishing a national product stewardship scheme. Battery recycling schemes have been in operation in Europe since 1991 and the ABRI sees potential in this space for batteries. Australia recycles more than 90 per cent of its lead acid batteries, ABRI’s report notes, creating the infrastructure and expertise that can be applied to other types of batteries.

Many councils, retailers and governments also provide drop off facilities for batteries, so residents would already be in the habit of recycling the heavy metal waste stream.

ABRI’s vision outlined in a report on stewardship drivers is for a national battery recycling scheme, along with promoting best practice collection and recycling and creating opportunities for information exchange, collaboration and policy development.

BATTERY MOMENTUM

Australia’s state and territory environment ministers have indicated a willingness to legislate on product stewardship approaches to battery recycling. At last year’s Meeting of Environment Ministers in July, ministers agreed to consider stewardship approaches at their next meeting, which could potentially involve a voluntary scheme and other regulatory options at the discretion of the states.

While the current scope of the Battery Industry Working Group, which is making recommendations to government, is on handheld rechargeable batteries under five kilograms, ABRI believes the scheme would best include all handheld batteries with room for expansion, particularly as battery technology evolves in the coming years.

It also argues including all handheld batteries in the scheme would reduce the fire risk and prevent consumers from getting confused through source separation.

A spokesperson for the Federal Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy tells Waste Management Review the Queensland Government is leading work on stewardship options for handheld battery recycling with the ABRI and industry representatives for presentation to environment ministers at their next meeting.

A spokesperson for the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science says it has committed $150,000 for the next stage of developing a battery stewardship program. An industry forum is expected to take place on 19 February, which at the time of publication had not occurred.

“The purpose of this forum is to engage a larger number of battery brands in the process, to update the sector on activities to date and seek feedback on the next steps,” they said.

The spokesperson said one of the opportunities that a stewardship program presents is the development of on-shore and domestic recycling capacity. “The Queensland Government has had several discussions with the recycling sector and is keen to continue work in this area to develop a viable onshore industry.”

“The department will continue to work with the battery sector, including battery brand owners, original equipment manufacturers, retailers and the recycling industry to fully develop a voluntary stewardship program and to consider what, if any, impacts will results from other countries’ decisions on waste exports.”

The spokesperson said the process of developing a voluntary product stewardship program has been well supported by key brands, including Energizer, Duracell, Bosch, Panasonic and Canon, as well as retailers such as Officeworks, BatteryWorld and Super Retail Group.

Libby Chaplin, Chief Executive Officer, ABRI, says the organisation is preparing a preliminary feasability assessment of regulatory options for the Battery Industry Working Group, which will be presented in February.

Libby Chaplin.

“The big issue is the need to create an effective mechanism for maximising industry participation,” she says.

“This could be done using a co-regulatory scheme under the Product Stewardship Act or a voluntary scheme authorised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Act.”

While Australia continues to lag behind 28 OECD countries in battery recycling, these countries largely consist of European nations, which are operating under a legal directive established in the early 1990s.

The EU’s Batteries Directive, established in 2006, prohibits the marketing of batteries with hazardous substances, while also setting targets for battery recycling and processes to establish schemes.

Similar product stewardship schemes to that which Libby is hoping to achieve in Australia have been operating in Europe since 1991, she adds.

“I attended the International Battery Recycling Conference in Lisbon last year and I was encouraged by the high degree of recovery achieved,” she says.

“I also went to visit Belgium and they have a recovery rate of 50-60 per cent and their research indicates that 90 per cent of residents are familiar with the BEBAT brand – the Belgium equivalent of the Product Stewardship Act.”

Another key reason for slow progress in Australia, she says, is its sprawling geography and associated travel costs, which has repercussions for the overall price of battery recycling.

Governments and industry therefore need to take steps to absorb some of these costs, she says.

Libby says momentum is growing at both the national and state levels. The Victorian Government is working through its proposed ban on e-waste to landfill, with its implementation expected in mid-2018.

“This type of mechanism will provide a robust system but we can’t just rely on it alone.

“We need to invest in the necessary recycling infrastructure and a voluntary levy on batteries would be a good place.”

Libby says perhaps the biggest impediment to increased recovery rates is the high cost of collection, which is not offset by the value of commodities. She says without a product stewardship scheme to address this market problem, change is unlikely, with the burden falling solely on government and communities to address the long-term impacts of improper disposal and lost resources.

The Queensland Government has been at the forefront of investigating the feasibility of battery recycling, having funded a series of trials with the Battery Industry Working Group.

One of these included a two-month trial in Toowoomba, which looked at the feasibility of collecting handheld rechargeable batteries for recycling. The pilot indicated a strong willingness from consumers to recycle batteries if provided with options, with a total of 1358 units collected from 14 sites in Toowoomba, including retail stores and council sites.

Bins were positioned at these sites for eight weeks between July 2016 and September 2016. The average cost of collection and handling was considered high at $30 a site, while the cost of recycling for chemistries averaged at $2 per kilogram, expected to reduce over time as competition increases.

The other pilot ran for nine months from September 2015 in Brisbane and looked at the feasibility of collecting used power tool batteries for recycling.

The pilot saw 2300 batteries collected and was similarly promising. Although a limited sample size, more than 90 per cent of consumers said the ability to recycle batteries would make the retailer appear more favourable.

The majority also said they would be highly likely to drop off their used batteries, provided there was a free and easy to use collection system. The influential pilot is now being used to inform the direction of battery recycling in Australia.

Libby Chaplin sorts batteries at the Sortbat battery sorting facility in Belgium.

In 2016-17 the department also provided $80,000 to Lighting Council Australia to pilot a collection and recycling program – ExitCycle – for exit sign and emergency lighting batteries. Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science spokesperson says the intent is for this program to roll out nationally.

While these trials were important, Libby believes now is the time action. 

“We have all the elements for a successful national scheme,” she says.

“What is needed now is for industry to agree on the most efficient and effective model and to make it happen. Without that, we are likely to see government intervention and/or a continuation of a fragmented approach across different states and territories.”

A spokesperson for Officeworks tells Waste Management Review the business supports a regulated, industry funded, product stewardship scheme for battery recycling in Australia.

“This approach is important in order for the program to be viable, equitable and sustainable into the future,” they said.

“Officeworks has previously participated in battery collection recycling programs as part of BatteryBack, and is an active member of the Battery Industry Working Group, established to implement a rechargeable battery recycling program in Australia.”

John Gertsakis, Director of Communications at Equilibrium, says the current process being driven by the Battery Industry Working Group is heading in the right direction.

“In the absence of producers and retailers coming forward to design and operate a voluntary battery stewardship scheme, there is a clear need for sensible regulation to maximise industry participation and environmental benefit,” John says.

“While voluntary schemes such as MobileMuster and Paintback are successful and enduring, many advocates of voluntary schemes are often driven by commercial interest or ideological views rather than environmental protection or consumer demand.”

Envirostream is one company that has taken the initiative to recycle batteries on shore.

The organisation accepts all batteries and recycles lithium, alkaline and nickel-metal hydride batteries. John Polhill, National Development Manager, says the company is proud to be Australia’s first and only multi-chemistry battery recycler.

“We’re the only ones currently recycling lithium, alkaline and nickel-metal hydride,” John says.

John describes the decision to launch Envirostream as a “necessary gamble”, as it charges a low gate fee of less than $1 as opposed to the industry average of $5.

“Our business model is affordable as it reduces costs at the front end by producing a product that generates revenue.

“By prioritising battery recycling outcomes over short term profits, we can increase recovery rates and prevent unnecessary export of waste batteries,” John explains.

Envirostream’s success follows two and a half years of research and development, including the design and manufacture of its equipment – the CDX Processor – with its sister company PF Metals.

It launched in January 2017, processing batteries at its facility in Victoria.

“We saw an opportunity in the market to recycle batteries locally by looking at international examples such as Asia, Europe and North America where battery recycling for nickel-metal hydride, lithium and alkaline are done within the respective countries.”

John says the company’s bold risk to enter the market at a low cost is linked to the increasing number of battery operated devices.

“We’re hedging our bets on this annual growth rate and staying ahead of the curve. We are a member of the ABRI and while we support regulated product stewardship, our business model leans towards a voluntary approach.

“We think the industry, including battery manufacturers, are more inclined to consider a cost-effective, voluntary approach first, before moving to regulation.

“Once the business model is established, legislators can assess the willingness to participate, and from there develop regulatory tools to support onshore recovery.”

John says that Envirostream’s business objective is to see 25 per cent of batteries be recycled in Australia by 2022, adding that the company intends to take the lead in this area.

“We’ve already made considerable inroads to process volumes in the current market in year one.

“This is a lesson in playing the long game and create a low-cost model now to build awareness and volumes as a result.”

ENVIROSTREAM’S BATTERY RECYCLING PROCESS 

John Polhill.

John Polhill, National Development Manager Envirostream, says the company’s recycling of lithium, alkaline and nickel-metal hydride is all performed under the same process. The company’s ISO 14001 accredited technology is capable of processing 80 tonnes of batteries per month, which are derived from EV and hybrid vehicles, electronics, power tools, energy storage systems and power generation.

John says Envirostream accepts batteries from government and industry funded schemes. From there, the batteries are weighed and catalogued. If they are pre-sorted, they are catalogued into chemistry types. If they require sorting, they are placed through a semi-manual sorting machine, in order to prevent contamination before being sent through Envirostream’s CDX Processor.

“Our innovative process, the CDX Processor combines mechanical and pneumatic separation techniques to produce copper, steel and aluminium, which is sold back onto national manufacturing markets.

“From there, we produce a specific mixed-metal compound which is sold back into the battery manufacturing sector, creating a true circular economic business model. We have an impressive greater than 95 per cent recovery rate.”