Al Gillespie: NZ needs to start recycling its batteries

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Al Gillespie says we are falling behind the rest of the world and laying up a toxic timebomb in our tips.

A number of countries have begun to set targets to keep portable batteries out of municipal waste. Photo / AP
A number of countries have begun to set targets to keep portable batteries out of municipal waste. Photo / AP

Modern consumer society exists on battery power.

The exact number of the batteries in circulation is a matter of speculation, but in Australia, an estimated 353 million portable batteries are consumed each year.

In the United States, about 3 billion alkaline batteries - alone - are purchased each year. This works out to about eight disposable alkaline batteries per person.

It is likely New Zealanders consume about the same amounts per capita, However, unlike the other countries, we have not evolved waste strategies to deal with the potential environmental costs.

We have known for decades that burning batteries can lead to explosive reactions. We also know carelessly disposing of them into waste sites can be equally damaging, but at a slower pace.

Damage may occur when the paper, plastic or metal casings holding them together break apart. Most of us have discovered corroded batteries in forgotten places, and quickly recoiled at the sight of unknown metals leaching out.

Ninety-nine per cent of the time we never see this, as old batteries dissolve in the ground or associated waterways of old dumps. This was a distinct problem when the batteries utilised dangerous levels of mercury, cadmium, or lead.

Although this first generation of highly toxic batteries is largely dealt with, the second generation of the newer, so-called "green" batteries, with their contributions of nickel, zinc and lithium are also a concern, and are also considered hazardous in many settings.

Because of the problems that portable batteries represent, a number of countries have attempted to manage the problem.

The first step to this management is ensuring consumers are aware of the risks. With batteries, people are commonly ignorant of what they possess, or how to deal with it.

This approach, which is common in Europe, the United States, China and Brazil, requires the clear labelling of all of the hazardous chemicals in each battery and the appropriate type of disposal they need. The Japanese colour code each potential pollutant and linked end-of-life treatment. In New Zealand, there is no mandated consumer information.

The second step to management is to prohibit or strictly regulate certain heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium. In New Zealand, we have benefited from importing batteries from other countries which have adopted such restrictions. Although both of these metals are recognised on our Waste List, our approaches on dealing with these wastes are more preferences than prohibitions.

The third step is to ensure that the batteries are dealt with correctly. In this instance, that requires appropriate disposal or recycling. In terms of recycling, the products of high-tech mineral processing are economically valuable metallic compounds that can be reused.

Because of the overlapping environmental and economic benefits of keeping portable batteries out of the municipal waste stream, a number of countries have begun to set targets in this area. For example, in Europe, by weight, 75 per cent of all nickel-cadmium batteries and 50 per cent of all other waste batteries must be recycled. We have no such recycling targets in New Zealand.

The final step has been to offer safe collection and transport of this waste. The long recognised rule is that for recycling to be successful, it must be easy for the consumer. Consensus is that this process is best dealt with by manufacturers and retailers at the forefront, rather than kerbside collection.

In the US, 14 states have developed comprehensive schemes that have already recycled more than 70 million batteries. In Europe, all states have to collect at least 45 per cent of all portable batteries by 2016. These collections must be done at no cost to the consumer.

In practice, this means in a country such as Britain, any retailer that sells more than 32kg of batteries per year is required to have facilities to also receive back the old batteries for recycling.

We have no such methods in New Zealand.

We have only a few councils and a few commercial entities which have opted to set some standards in this area. These are commendable, but we have no national take-back scheme linked to producer and/or retailer responsibility. We do, however, have the mantra that we are 100 Per Cent Pure, Clean and Green.

Al Gillespie is Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research and Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

- NZ Herald

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