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Battery Recycling Needs a Boost

Brands, producers and retailers must take ownership of battery recycling

The enthusiasm for battery recycling in Australia continues to grow, however there is a need to minimise burdensome process-bound activities.

Of all waste streams, a stewardship approach for handheld batteries (under 5kg) should be achievable within a relatively short time-frame, even if it means small steps and modest incremental outcomes. Handheld batteries are not televisions or IT equipment; nor do they require unnecessarily complex regulatory instruments or high cost developmental interventions. There are ample programs, schemes and services underway in many countries around the world to learn from, and reconfigure for the Australian market.

Consumer research by Planet Ark suggests that the wider community is ready and willing to embrace responsible battery recycling behaviours. Our own commercial experience also supports the view that some organisations (private and public) are prepared to recycle batteries through a user-pays service, especially where there are uniform national solutions as opposed to piecemeal trials with limited environmental benefits.

Ongoing work by the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI) demonstrates that numerous stakeholders are eager to see national solutions that are cost effective and environmentally sound. Considerable research and several studies have been prepared by ABRI, and these together with other reports by Sustainability Victoria and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, are feeding into a national process through the Battery Implementation Working Group. This group is chaired by Russ Martin, CEO of the Global Product Stewardship Council. This has the potential to inform the creation of a national program, however much more needs to be done to quickly and positively engage key battery brands and major retailers to be the primary architects of any program. Not always a straightforward activity.

An important recent outcome has been the release of a discussion paper on 'Options and approaches for the proposed Handheld Battery Product Stewardship Scheme'. This key document is a proposal developed by the Battery Implementation Working Group, a committee made up of industry associations, the Federal Department of the Environment and State agencies (Victoria and Queensland). The discussion paper can be downloaded here and is inviting feedback by 31 March 2014.

In summary, the proposal is for voluntary, industry-led national product stewardship scheme applying to all handheld batteries less than 5 kg, with the exception of embedded batteries (i.e. batteries that can’t be removed without damaging the product). 

As a voluntary, industry-led national approach, the proposed Scheme is open to a broad range of stakeholders and has the benefits of simplicity of design, reduced barriers to participation and ease of understanding. The proposed Scheme may provide more immediate action with lower costs compared to a co-regulatory approach, however this has yet to be tested. It is envisaged that importers of handheld batteries would have primary financial responsibility for funding the Scheme, however the question s funding is often the most contentious element and subject to fierce debate.

Chief Sustainability Officer with Infoactiv Group said that "ultimately, the focus must be on a national solution that is owned and managed by key stakeholders. To spend time, effort and public funds on process-bound activities which meander options at a glacial pace will be an embarrassment for policy makers, associations, brands and retailers alike."

"It would also highlight that we have not fully understood and addressed the learnings from existing schemes and programs, be it exemplary voluntary initiatives such as MobileMuster (mobile phone take-back), or the nascent and 'rough-running' co-regulated National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, said Gertsakis.

The time has come for battery recycling to get a rapid boost in Australia, and for key producers and retailers to drive the process mindful of their commercial, social and environmental priorities.