April 23, 2007

Battery study raises questions about recovery, recycling levels

By: Mark Sabourin

Discarded batteries make up a tiny percentage of total household waste, but you'd be hard pressed to believe that following recent national coverage of an Environment Canada study.

The Canadian Consumer Battery Baseline Study, released on April 5, highlighted the weakness of the Canadian battery recovery and recycling infrastructure. But Susan Antler, Canadian program co-ordinator for the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), says it does not give proper credit to the successes of the voluntary program put in place by the rechargeable battery industry.

The study looks at current levels of consumer sales of primary (non-rechargeable) and secondary (rechargeable) batteries, projections through 2010, and the impact of various end-of-life recovery efforts. Foremost among these are the voluntary efforts of the RBRC, though batteries are also recovered through hazardous waste programs, electronics stewardship programs and, in PEI, a return-to-retail program called "Re-Store Your Batteries."

The report estimates that of approximately 11,623 tonnes of batteries that reached end-of-life in 2004, only 323 tonnes were recycled. The rest ended up in landfill. Though that tonnage, nationally, is only a small fraction of total waste disposal, batteries contain a potent mixture of toxic metals that can leach into groundwater and contaminate drinking water sources.

It's a baseline study, says Duncan Bury, head of product policy in Environment Canada's environmental stewardship branch. "It's an attempt to develop an inventory. We need to know what we're talking about first."

That word, "first," is troubling to the RBRC because it suggests there is more to come, given what appears to be a failure of existing battery recovery efforts. Antler suggests that's not fair.

RBRC recovered 214 tonnes of rechargeable batteries in 2006, a 22% increase over 2005, and 17% above the year before. Though that tonnage is modest when compared to the tonnage of rechargeable batteries sold (Environment Canada estimates 4,191 in 2004) or that reached end-of-life (Environment Canada estimates 3,013 in 2004), Antler refuses to be drawn into a debate about recovery and recycling rates.

RBRC does not claim a recycling rate for a number of reasons, she says. Rechargeable batteries have a long lifespan. They are products that consumers tend to hoard long after their useful life has been exhausted. And they are often stored at collection points for some time before reaching a volume critical enough to warrant shipment to the recycler. Those facts call into question some of the assumptions contained in the federal study, she argues.

RBRC was formed in the United States and extended into Canada by the rechargeable battery industry largely to pre-empt legislated stewardship. It is run and funded entirely by industry. However, it involves only part of the industry, and though it has achieved a great deal from a standing start, Bury suggests the battery industry may be compelled to address the issue more aggressively.

That might include a pollution prevention notice under Part 4 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), or imposing extended producer responsibility under section 93 of CEPA. Alternatively, says Bury, Environment Canada could enter into a voluntary performance agreement with the battery manufacturing sector.

"There are a number of issues on the table, none of which we've made any final determination on," he says.

Antler, who when not representing RBRC wears the hat of executive director of the Composting Council of Canada, asks: "If only we could have that kind of concern and attention from Environment Canada about composting and organics recovery, wouldn't we be in a much better position?"

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