Why we need Battery Stewardship

Need for battery stewardship

There is an imminent need for a battery stewardship scheme due to a number of compelling public benefits and detriments.

Figure 1. Challenges for a secure and viable battery recycling program

Rapidly expanding waste stream

Australians are becoming increasingly reliant on batteries in small handheld devices, and for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems. By 2036 it is projected we will generate 137,000 – 186,000 tonnes of waste lithium batteries each year – the weight of the opera house!

Figure 2. Projected exponential rise in generation of waste lithium batteries

Low rate of recovery

Except for automotive batteries, Australia currently has a very low recovery rate. According to the most recent stocks and flows report, Australia’s recycling rate for non-automotive batteries is less than 3%. When put in the context of other OECD countries, highlights Australia poor performance as they lag far behind other OECD countries as can be seen in the figure below.

Figure 3. Battery recovery comparisons with OECD countries and or states

Product Stewardship in Australia has been delivering results for products such as computers and televisions, and mobile phones. Similar schemes have been operating Europe since 1991 and more recently in the US. We can build on the experience of these schemes to create an effective and efficient scheme for batteries to improve our performance in this important arena.

Burden on local government

Currently, the responsibility and cost of managing batteries disposed of inappropriately to landfill falls to local government. This burden is exacerbated given the low recycling rate which means that high numbers are being disposed of to landfill. It is important to realise that nearly all batteries are hazardous. Although in an ideal world landfills would be lined and well maintained, this is not always the case. In QLD, for example, it has been suggested that 40% of landfills remain unlined. As a result, toxic material such as cadmium, lead, carbon black, are being leaked into soil and groundwater causing harmful emissions into the local environmental.

A further risk and significant cost arises from the flammable nature of some batteries. If lithium ion batteries are damaged or subjected to high temperatures, they can spontaneously combust. The result is fire – whether it be in a recycling collection truck, a transfer station or a landfill. The cost of managing these fires can be high and cause significant stress to local councils.

Risks to community health and safety

Perhaps the biggest risk is community safety.  Most batteries contain an electrolyte subsBoth improper storage in the home and disposal to landfill can create a very real fire risk.  The loss of a home is extremely serious, but the impact of a landfill fire effects many more lives with the release of dioxins and other toxins into the atmosphere.

Loss of valuable resources

Batteries are mostly comprised of metals & plastic. Some of these such as cobalt are mined in conditions which most Australia would find unacceptable . The least we can do is recognize the value of their sacrifice by protecting the resources themselves. Disposal to landfill means these resources are locked up from further use. In a circular economy, we would see valuable resources used again, capturing metals & reducing the need for extraction of raw materials.

Almost all batteries can be recycled to recover metals and other valuable components as shown in the table below.

Processing of Battery Type Contents (may vary depending on application/battery type)
Lithium-ion Phosphate, cobalt (heavy metal), lithium, carbon, Silicon, graphite, manganese, tin, iron, copper, nickel, plastic
Lithium metal / Lithium Primary Lithium perchlorate (possible), organic solvents
Nickel-metal hydride Nickel (heavy metal), potassium hydroxide, Zinc, Aluminium, Cobalt, Manganese, Misch Metal (rare earth)
Nickel Cadmium Nickel oxide hydroxide, cadmium (toxic heavy metal)
Some button cell batteries Lithium ion, Mercury, alkaline, silver oxide, manganese, silver
Alkaline batteries Zinc, manganese, potassium hydroxide, casing materials, separator materials, plastic, plastic, aluminium, mercury (in older batteries)
Lead acid Lead, carbon black, barium sulphate, separates (wood, glass, plastic, rubber, glass, cellulose or PVC)

The value of materials recovered from batteries varies. Resource recovery is particularly important for some of the scarcer materials, but in general there is no doubt that the majority have real value that is lost for the foreseeable future once it enters the landfill.

Recent studies by the Battery University found that the viability of recycling is dependent on battery type.

This table provides an indication of this variation and highlights the inhibitors for market forces to responsibly manage the lower value batteries such as lithium ion and nickel cadmium.

Battery Chemistry Recycling
Lithium cobalt oxide Subsidy needed
Cobalt Subsidy needed
Lithium iron phosphate Subsidy needed
Lead acid Profitable
Nickel Subsidy needed
Cadmium Subsidy needed


Precarious nature of export options

As we have seen in the media in recent times, recyclable materials in general are subject to export restrictions when countries such as China change policy. Export of used lithium batteries is even more vulnerable, since shipping lines are starting to restrict shipping of batteries due to fire risk. In recent years port fires caused by batteries have raised alarm bells. The trend is to disallow export, reducing access to overseas solutions. Local certainty and investment is needed to secure onshore solutions.

Tyranny of Distance: cost of collection outweighs value

The economic viability of recycling batteries in Australia is undermined by the high cost of logistics and collection. Export of batteries may also be problematic in the future as shipping companies and their insurance brokers restrict shipping of potentially flammable batteries with a number of examples of this already occurring.

Free riding impedes results

Currently the cost of managing handheld batteries at the end of their life is borne by state and local government, and ultimately the community through taxes and rates. Industry has continued to avoid taking responsibility for disposal of their products in part due to a very real concern by industry leaders that to enter into a scheme could put them at a disadvantage in what is a very competitive industry. However, what this ultimately means is that industry in general is free riding. This scheme will allow industry leaders to avoid the free rider status and become part of an Australian wide solution.