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World wide 15 billion primary batteries are thrown away every year, all of which end up in landfill sites. Rechargeable batteries can be reused which helps reduce the impact disposable batteries have on the environment. But without this innovation, the battery industry has been one of the pioneers of reprocessing with recycling schemes dating back to the nineteenth century. It is claimed that 90% of all rechargeable Lead Acid batteries are recycled making it the world's most recycled product.
The following information about the possibilities for recycling in the UK has been provided by WasteWatch a UK charitable organisation.
At the bottom of the page you will also find a quotation by the British Battery Manufacturers Association about Batteries and the Environment and some general Statistics on recycling in the UK
Promoting action on waste reduction reuse and recycling Information.
In 2001 we bought 680 million batteries in the UK, most of these (89%) were general purpose batteries. It is estimated that in 2000, almost 19,000 tonnes of waste general purpose batteries and 113,000 tonnes of waste automotive batteries required disposal in the UK.
Currently, only a very small percentage of consumer disposable batteries are recycled (less than 2%) and most waste batteries are disposed of in landfill sites. The rate for recycling of consumer rechargeable batteries is estimated to be 5%.
The average household uses 21 batteries a year.
The UK generates 20,000 - 30,000 tonnes of waste general purpose batteries every year, but less than 1,000 tonnes are recycled.
Automotive batteries, on the other hand, are more routinely recycled in the UK, with a current recycling rate of approximately 90%. They are collected at garages, scrap metal facilities and many civic amenity and recycling centres.
Whilst the exact chemical make-up varies from type to type (see below), most batteries contain heavy metals, which are the main cause for environmental concern. When disposed of incorrectly, these heavy metals may leak into the ground when the battery casing corrodes. This can contribute to soil and water pollution and endanger wildlife. Cadmium, for example, can be toxic to aquatic invertebrates and can bio-accumulate in fish, which makes them unfit for human consumption. Some batteries, such as button cell batteries, also contain mercury, which has similarly hazardous properties. Mercury is no longer being used in the manufacture of non-rechargeable batteries, except button cells where it is a functional component, and the major European battery suppliers have been offering mercury-free disposable batteries since 1994.
Types of Battery
There are a number of different types of household batteries used by householders for a variety of purposes. The three main types are:
Wet-cell: Lead acid batteries used to power vehicles and by industry.
Dry-cell non-rechargeable: These are the most common types of household battery.
General purpose disposable household batteries include
- Zinc carbon used in low drainage appliances such as torches, clocks, shavers and radios.
- Zinc chloride used in similar applications.
- Alkaline manganese used in personal stereos, radio-cassette players. Less prone to leaking than the above two types and longer lasting.
- Primary button cells :
- Mercuric oxide used in batteries for hearing aids, pacemakers, photographic equipment.
- Zinc air - an alternative to mercuric oxide button cells - used for hearing aids and radio pagers.
- Silver oxide used for electronic watches and calculators.
- Lithium used for watches and photographic equipment.
Dry-cell rechargeable - general purpose rechargeable batteries for the above uses, and also including Nickel cadmium, Nickel metal hydride and Lithium-Ion batteries used in power tools, cordless appliances, mobile phones etc.
- Nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries represent one of the fastest growing sectors in the battery market. Used for cordless power tools, personal stereos, portable telephones, lap-top computers, shavers, motorised toys etc, with a life of 4-5 years.
- Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are a less environmentally harmful alternative to NiCd and tend to have a longer life.
- Lithium ion (Li-Ion) batteries have a greater energy storage capacity than NiCd and NiMH batteries.
Using rechargeable batteries reduces the number of batteries requiring disposal, but 80% of them contain nickel cadmium, a known human carcinogen, and therefore need to be disposed of safely.
Battery Collection Schemes
An increasing number of householders recognise the residual value of spent batteries and separate them from their general household waste for recycling. A number of local authorities now collect waste household batteries as part of multi-material kerbside collections, such as the well-publicised Bristol scheme (see below). If your local authority does not provide such as service, some retailers such as DIY shops and supermarkets have battery collection points at their stores. Businesses can contact RABBITT Recycling or G&P Batteries (see Useful Contacts below) for further information on collections for recycling.
Rechargeable batteries can also be recycled once they have reached the end of their useful lives. REBAT was set up in 1998 to manage and collect the main types of portable rechargeable batteries in the UK. Their web site contains a list of company contact details and collection points (see Useful Contacts below).
Batteries contain a range of metals which can be reused as a secondary raw material. There are well-established methods for the recycling of most batteries containing lead, nickel-cadmium, nickel hydride and mercury. For some, such as newer nickel-hydride and lithium systems, recycling is still in the early stages.
There are a number of different recycling processes for batteries, which are aimed at recovering a variety of materials:
- Lead can be recovered by either separating the different materials that make up the battery (lead, plastics, acid, etc.) prior to metallurgical processing. Alternatively, batteries can be processed as a whole through heat treatment in a particular type of furnace with metals being recovered at the end of his process.
- NiCd batteries can be reprocessed through a similar thermal technique, which recovers cadmium and iron-nickel for steel production.
- Batteries containing mercury (button cells) are most commonly processed using a vacuum-thermal treatment, in which the mercury vaporises. It condenses and eventually solidifies when temperatures are reduced and can then be reintroduced into the material cycle.
- NiMH batteries are reprocessed by mechanically separating the individual materials (plastic, hydrogen and nickel) within a vacuum chamber to prevent the escape of hydrogen. The output of this process is a product with high nickel content which can be used in the manufacture of stainless steel.
- Li-Ion batteries are currently reprocessed through pyrolysis (heat treatment) with the primary recovery the metal content.
- Zinc-carbon/air and alkaline-manganese batteries can be reprocessed using a number of different methods, which include smelting and other thermal-metallurgical processes to recover the metal content (particularly zinc).
At the time of writing, the UK has only very limited facilities able to recycle secondary consumer and industrial batteries, other than lead-acid cells. The majority of automotive and industrial lead-acid cells are processed by two UK lead smelters (Britannia Refined Metals in Kent and HJ Enthoven & Sons in Derbyshire). Button cell batteries containing mercury are reprocessed at two UK facilities (Odin Technology and Mercury Recycling).
In September 2002, Britannia Zinc at Avonmouth and Bristol based Resource Saver launched a trial scheme, which piloted the collection and reprocessing of disposable household batteries in the area. However, the scheme's existence was threatened following the closure of Britannia Zinc, the only UK zinc reprocessing plant, in February 2003. The pilot scheme was concluded successfully and kerbside collection of batteries will continue in Bristol, but batteries now have to be sent to France for reprocessing, which has increased the cost of the scheme.
In October 2003, AEA Technology (AEAT) launched a £2 million research and development facility in Sutherland, north Scotland, for Li-Ion battery recycling. This new process employs a series of separation technologies to disassemble the battery systematically and focuses on maximising the recovery of cobalt and other metals such as copper from the battery for resale. All types of lithium-ion and lithium -ion polymer batteries will be treated.
Other European reprocessing facilities include:
Batrec AG in Switzerland - reprocessing of a wide range of batteries. Batrec was the first company in the world to recycle batteries commercially (up to 2,000 tonnes a year). Their reprocessing method is based on a Japanese system developed by Sumitomo Heavy Industries which allows 95% of the component parts to be re-used. Resultant products are ferromanganese, zinc, zinc oxides and mercury.
Citron in France - thermal-metallurgical reprocessing primarily of zinc-carbon/air and alkaline-manganese (including older ones containing mercury), but also NiMH, Li-Ion, NiCd and lead batteries.
Recupyl in France - recovery of metals through hydro-metallurgical recycling of all types of batteries
SAFT-NIFE in Sweden - reprocessing of industrial NiCd batteries
SNAM (Societe Nouvelle d'Affinage des Metaux) in France - mechanical recycling of rechargeable NiCd and Li-Ion batteries and nickel-hydride batteries
Valdi/Tredi in France - pyrolysis (heat treatment with recovery of metals such as zinc, cadmium and lead) of zinc-carbon, aluminium-manganese and NiCd batteries
In 1991, the EU Directive on Batteries and Accumulators (91/157/EEC) was introduced. It requires that batteries containing more than 25mg of mercury (except alkaline manganese batteries), 0.025% of cadmium by weight and 0.4% lead by weight to be collected separately from household waste for recycling or special disposal. It also sets permissible limits for these heavy metals. The directive largely affects lead-acid, NiCd and mercuric oxide batteries.
The 1991 Directive was amended by a 1998 Directive (98/101/EEC) in order to adapt the original Directive to technical progress. The amendment further reduces the permissible heavy metal limits and prohibits the marketing of batteries and accumulators containing more than 0.0005% of mercury and button cells containing more than 2% of mercury by weight from the 1 January 2000.
A further EU Directive (93/86/EEC) requires the marking of button cells or batteries made of button cells:
- containing more than 5 ppm (parts per million) mercury per cell up to 2 % mercury, applying to silver oxide, zinc air and alkaline button cells
- containing more than 0.025% cadmium by weight, applying to nickel cadmium batteries
- containing more than 0.4% lead by weight, applying to lead acid batteries
The markings are as follows:
Batteries containing mercury
Batteries containing cadmium
Batteries containing lead
Currently, the EU and its Member States are negotiating a further amendment to the 1991 Directive. The draft Directive is expected to propose the following measures:
- Member States will be expected to ensure that 90% of portable batteries enter a recycling process.
- A recycling weight-based efficiency target, i.e. this proportion of materials will have to be recovered during the recycling process. This is to be achieved within three years of the Directive coming into force.
- A mandatory weight-based collection target per head of population. This replaces earlier percentage targets.
- Mandatory collection targets of 80% and a recycling target of 75% (with 100% for the cadmium component) for NiCds.
- A ban on land filling and incineration of all industrial and automotive batteries.
- Producers of all types of batteries will be responsible for treatment and disposal costs, except for small household batteries.
The European Commission is expected to table the draft Directive in the near future.
What You Can Do
- Use the mains when possible.
- Use rechargeable batteries and a battery charger. This saves energy because the energy needed to manufacture a battery is on average 50 times greater than the energy it gives out.
- Opt for appliances that can use power derived from the sun via solar panels or from a winding mechanism, e.g. radios, mobile phone wind-up chargers.
- Participate in local authority battery collection schemes where they are available. If you Council does not provide one at the moment, contact them and find out if they are planning to do so in future.
- Seek guidance on how to dispose or recycle batteries from either the distributor who originally supplied the battery, the battery manufacturer or the appliance manufacturer.
- Send batteries back to manufacturers for recycling or reprocessing where such a scheme is available.
British Battery Manufacturers Association
26 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1 0GT
Contact: Paul Duke
Tel: 020 7838 4800
Information on the current situation and impending legislation.
Department of Trade and Industry.
Telephone: 020 7215 1036
Useful source of information on current legislation.
Environmental Enquiry Point
Tel: 0800 585 794.
Useful source of scientific information
European Portable Battery Association (EPBA)
Avenue Marcel Thiry 204, B-1200 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 2 774 9602 Fax: +32 2 774 9690
European organisation of companies manufacturing, selling or distributing portable batteries.
26 Grosvenor Gardens, London, SW1 0GT
Tel: 020 7838 4800
Rebat stands for RE cycling BA tteries. REBAT is an initiative managed by the British Battery Manufacturers Association to encourage collection of nickel cadmium batteries in the UK, as required under European legislation.
When future European legislation requires the collection of all portable batteries REBAT will extend its remit to manage all types.
Commercial battery collectors & recyclers
Worktwice Marketing Ltd
The Cottages, 27-29 New Street, Gloucestershire,
Tel: 0800 1381988 Fax: 01453 521330
Recycling batteries, mobile phones, IT equipment and more for businesses
G & P Batteries
Crescent Works Industrial Park, Willenhall Road
Tel: 0121 568 3200 Fax: 0121 568 3201
G&P Batteries is the largest nation-wide collector of waste batteries in the UK, particularly lead acid.
Envirogreen Special Waste Services
Regus House, 268 Bath Road , Slough , Berks, SL1 4DX
Tel: 0845 712 5398 Fax: 01753 537314
Batteries, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), 2000. To order call 0870 1502 500 (Free of charge)
The issues surrounding the Identification and collection of post consumer batteries, National Household Hazardous Waste Forum, Tel: 0113 246 7584 (£35 for members, £75 for non members)
Portable batteries: new technologies and environmental responsibilities - conference proceedings, AEA Technology report no: 98-0110. Call 01372 367425 (£92.10)
Waste Watch is a leading environmental organisation promoting sustainable resource management in the UK by campaigning for all areas of society to:
- reduce resource consumption
- maximise resource reuse
- increase the percentage of waste they recycle
And is partly funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Environmental Action Fund.
For further information on Waste Watch membership, publications and consultancy services, please ring 020 7089 2100, fax 020 7403 4802
For further information and advice on this and other topics, please contact the:
The Waste Watch Wasteline is supported by Cleanaway Ltd, EMR and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Send an A4 stamped addressed envelope to:
Waste Watch, 96 Tooley Street, London, SE1 2TH
Registered Charity No. 1005417, Registered Company No. 2649156, ENTRUST Registration No. 871023
In the USA and Canada the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation will provide you with the address of return drop off points. Contact them at email@example.com
Batteries and the Environment
Quotation from The British Battery Manufacturers Association
- Batteries account for less than 0.001% of domestic waste
- More than 98% of primary batteries now contain no heavy metals such as mercury
- Silver oxide button cells are the only primary battery that contains materials sufficiently valuable to enable commercial recycling
- Despite extensive trials there has never been any evidence that batteries have had an impact on the environment, either through their disposal through land filling or incineration
- Current European Community and UK government battery legislation is based upon control of heavy metals. The main battery types covered are two rechargeable systems; lead acids (used in cars) and nickel cadmiums
- Future moves to collect all batteries are based upon a desire to minimise the VOLUME of waste arising and NOT because of the contents of batteries
The above chart was prepared by Defra, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It shows that in the UK, Lead is the most recycled material at around 70%. This is somewhat less than the 90% usually reported by other sources for the recycling of Lead acid batteries.
By contrast, only about 5% of plastics are recycled.