Many different things come to mind when you think of Belgium: beer, mussels, Tintin, the saxophone, chocolate. Add batteries to your list because Belgium has the most comprehensive battery recycling program on the planet. As Ontario and other provinces move towards battery stewardship programs, why re-invent the wheel?
Shortly after the European Union battery directive emerged in the 1990s, an “ecotax” for Belgian batteries (and other products) was considered that would have increased the cost of batteries by 20 to 30 per cent. Instead, a five year voluntary agreement between the federal and the regional governments, and the battery industry supplanted the ecotax on batteries. In 1996, industry non-profit organization called BEBAT assumed responsibility for all end of life portable batteries in Belgium. Authorities insisted that all battery chemistries be included in the program and in return agreed that the collection system would be voluntary. Collection targets were 40 per cent in year one and 50 per cent by year two.
Financing and costs
Program costs are passed onto consumers via battery price increases. Following industry deliberations and government consultations, the initial visible point-of-sale fee was 0.10 per battery. This rate was increased after the first three years to 0.1239 per battery but is now considered to be too high and will likely drop to the 0.07-0.08 level. These fees are supported via government regulation.
In 2006, Belgian battery sales were about 147 million units or about 5,000 tonnes. (In Canada around 700 million batteries were sold in 2007.) Annual fees to BEBAT are about 18.2 million , which pays for a battery recycling program for 10.3 million people (about the same population as Ontario). According to an EU study, the Belgian program costs about 0.105 per battery.
Communications and schools
Four BEBAT staff members are dedicated to educating children in the school environment. Another six staff members constantly check each collection point (for placement, posters, cleanliness, etc.) once every two weeks. There are draws, games, contests, cartoon characters and videos. One small cardboard box is mailed to each household each year plus small plastic bags three times per year (for in-house storage and transfer to one of 18,000 collection points). Individuals put their name on the bags (with at least six batteries) with the chance of winning lottery prizes such as a hybrid car or a digital camera.
Battery collection in all 2,600 Belgian schools is facilitated by the provision of blue 60 litre plastic barrels that are serviced upon demand, free of charge. For every kilogram of batteries collected, BEBAT awards one point to individual schools: The points can be used to purchase a range of sporting and education related items from a catalogue including soccer balls (35 points) or computers (5600 points).
Lessons learned by Belgium’s battery steward (10+ years experience):
1. Develop complete and coherent legislation (back drop or otherwise)
2. Secure sufficient and sustainable program financing
3. Introduce an extensive marketing and communications strategy
4. Focus on schools for future program sustainability
5. Implement one collection system for all portable batteries
6. Maximize public convenience
7. Maintain sincere and open relation with authorities
8. Authorities must control “free riders”
Collection, sorting and recycling
All spent portable batteries are collected commingled. Various containers are used but the workhorse is a 60 litre drum. Full drums are replaced by empty ones. Municipal container parks may be provided with small metal housing in which two drums are placed. There are also indoor drop-off stations with up to three 15 litre cardboard boxes (similarly, full boxes are replaced with empty ones). Large volume generators may purchase a 650 litre plastic pallet box — it is for indoor use only and fork lift is required to move it.
SITA is contracted by BEBAT to collect the batteries: They use six vans that typically carry 1,000 kilograms per load. Each van services 25 collection points per day; auto-routing establishes service frequency: Once every two, four or six weeks depending on need. Collection also occurs upon request.
There are three battery consolidation depots in Belgium. SITA also operates the sorting facility in Flanders where drums and boxes are emptied onto tables and batteries manually sorted. Very few contaminants are found in the battery stream. The sorted batteries are stored in large containers for shipment to recyclers. BEBAT plans to build a state-ofthe-art battery semi-automated sorting facility in the near future.
The EU battery directive specifies a 50 per cent recycling rate for collected alkaline and zinc carbon batteries (about 80 per cent of Belgian batteries sold). These batteries are mechanically processed into ferrous, nonferrous, plastic, paper and “black mass” fractions. Between 37 and 61 per cent is recycled, depending on technology and accounting. While BEBAT must pay to recycle the alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries, the other batteries generate revenue.
Monitoring and performance
The thousand battery producer and distributor members of BEBAT report monthly sales by chemistry type, units and weight (web-based system). BEBAT calculates the collection rates and can be audited by the authorities at any time. The program collected 49 per cent of the batteries sold into the market place in 2006. If the average sales and collection data are taken from 2000 until 2006, the collection rate becomes 54 per cent. In either case, the EU target of 45 per cent by 2016 is already surpassed.
In 2004 BEBAT analyzed 132,900 kg of household waste from ten different truck loads from all over Belgium. In total 1,199 batteries weighing 32.97 kg (or 0.0248 per cent) were found in the sample. If 2.3 million tonnes of waste are discarded annually, then Belgians toss about 575 tonnes of batteries each year.
Therefore, it is estimated that about 80 per cent of available end-of-life batteries were captured or 237 grams per capita per year.
Would a Belgian style battery collection program work in Canada? Perhaps we should try.
Rob Sinclair is with Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Contact Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org