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Revised Battery Directive coming soon: what’s the way forward?

Proposals to phase out primary batteries is incompatible with Europe’s goal of a circular and carbon neutral economy, according to Hans Craen, secretary general of the European Portable Battery Association (EPBA). This was one of the topics that came up during the recent annual International Congress for Battery Recycling in Geneva.

The European Commission is currently reviewing the Batteries Directive with a main focus on environmental sustainability. The proposed approaches and measures under discussion include a restriction or even a total prohibition of primary batteries.

The EPBA is one of 14 industry parties to voice concerns about the European Commission’s conclusions that are meant to pave the way for the European Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan. Craen and fellow industry stakeholders insist that they will support both initiatives if they are based on ‘truly sustainable solutions’ – which they insist a ban is not.

EU representative José Rizo Martin, who presented the proposals for the revised Battery Directive in Geneva, says the European Commission wants to be ‘an honest broker’. The updated directive will come into force in 2022. 

What does the data say?

A recent assessment by the Öko Institute showed that banning primary batteries would have only a moderate effect on the amount of waste batteries (cutting 25% by weight). But it found there would be significant negative impact on the environment, including global warming, human toxicity, aqua toxicity and environmental acidification.

Furthermore, three life cycle assessments carried out for portable battery manufacturers demonstrate that primary batteries are more environmentally sustainable than other types of portable batteries when operated in low-drain devices,  the main area of application for primary batteries. Products such as utility meters, environmental sensors and asset tracking devices can last almost two decades.

It is argued that the lower and more efficient discharge level of primary batteries, combined with the need for repeated recharging of secondary batteries, makes them the best choice for low-drain devices. Over 50% of the battery appliances market is focused on miniature, portable, lightweight, low-drain applications and continued growth in this segment is expected. The Öko Institute analysis indicates that the total prohibition of primary batteries would mean the scrapping of 70% of today’s battery powered devices, resulting in considerable waste.

Misleading comparison

Battery stakeholders also insist that primary batteries cannot be compared to single use products such as certain plastics where no organised collection and recycling infrastructure exists. ‘Primary batteries are energy sources and they have great impact on a vast number of essential applications and sectors using primary batteries,’ Craen and his fellow signatories state. ‘They are designed to be used many times in one or even multiple appliances and, in some cases, for the entire life of the equipment. Qualifying primary batteries as ‘single use products’ is hence misleading.’

Apart from this reservation, EPBA fully supports the commission’s proposal. Craen suggests giving the market three years to adopt the new regulations as all transitions take time and do not always go smoothly.

‘Some people think that expanding deposit schemes is the golden ticket to increased collection and recycling: I don’t think it’s that simple,’ says Craen. ‘Just because a scheme works well in one country or area doesn’t mean it’s a viable approach that can be copy-and-pasted into other scenarios. Especially not when factoring in the many different types of batteries and battery-driven products.’

New times, new questions

Eric Ruyters of Eucobat, the European association of national collection schemes for batteries, says ‘the devil is in the details’. ‘We always strive to collect more but we can only collect what is available,’ he points out. ‘What’s the right figure to work with? This is a matter of great discussion.’

He argues that ‘available for collection’ can take on various meanings: some data includes the lifespan, other data includes repurposing. In some cases, it is five years before the batteries are recovered for recycling; in others, it’s 15 years. Lithium-ion batteries in the e-mobility segment tend to last longer than a decade. But they present unique challenges.

‘We would prefer to differentiate between EV and light EV batteries, powering e-bikes, e-scooters etc but that raises new questions,’ Ruyters laments. ‘Where does each category start and end? Can all players in Europe find a way to agree on this?’

‘We expect the new regulation will support the competitiveness of the European battery ecosystem,’ adds Claude Chanson of Recharge, the advanced rechargeable and lithium batteries industry association in Europe. He envisions ‘future-proof’ regulation that considers today’s technology and what is likely tomorrow.

‘We must be realistic. Sure, we can boost results by a few per cent but, in order to do so, we will need more systems and additional steps. So we will use more resources to recover a small amount of battery materials. Marginal benefit for the circular economy, excessively ambitious targets… is this what we really want?’

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