“After we launched B-cycle in 2021, we thought, ‘finally, we can catch our breath’, but it was quite the opposite.” Libby Chaplin means this in a good way. The CEO of the Battery Stewardship Council has had a busy year, almost doubling the collection rate to 2400 tonnes of batteries and quadrupling the number of B-cycle Drop off points to 4,195.
The swift surge in B-cycle battery collections is a major step forward, preventing toxic materials from ending up in landfills and conserving finite resources, and Chaplin said she is proud of the success. Yet the rapid expansion is not without its challenges.
“Batteries are not like other products,” Chaplin explains. “They are hazardous and dangerous goods presenting an increasingly significant fire risk.”
The NSW Government have reported a 20 per cent increase in lithium battery fires this year. Industry reports three fires a week in waste and recycling infrastructure and ultimately the Australian community bears the cost. The destruction of infrastructure and property in the waste sector also comes at a heavy price for communities.
“There are also increased risks to human health, with 20 children a week presenting to an emergency department suspected of having ingested or inserted a button battery, and one child a month seriously injured” Chaplin said.
Combine these factors, including the absence of import controls to uphold quality standards for batteries entering Australia, a limited awareness among the Australian public regarding battery safety, and the persistent issue of free riding within the voluntary B-cycle Scheme, it’s safe to say that Chaplin and the Battery Stewardship Council have a busy time ahead.
B-cycle released a campaign in November 2023 to improve battery safety in Australia, urging people to never put their used batteries in general waste and recycling bins, to tape the terminals with clear sticky tape and take them to a B-cycle Drop off point. It’s the start of what Chaplin expects will be an ongoing campaign, but she is confident that once people are aware of the dangers, behaviour will change.
According to recent research released by BSC, 98 per cent of respondents indicated they were ‘Likely’ to use a B-cycle Battery Collection Point to recycle used batteries.
Convenience was identified as the most significant barrier and now with increased numbers of drop-off points at most major retail stores, it is expected that more Australians will be recycling their batteries.
The effects of free riding cannot be underestimated as it directly affects the budget and the ability to increase safe and convenient drop-off locations across the country.
Despite the participation of 80 per cent of importers of loose batteries in the Scheme, the remaining 20 per cent, represents a competitive disadvantage for responsible brands. This is also a big issue in emerging markets such as e-bikes, Chaplin explains, as it takes a long time to bring in a whole new sector.
The Battery Stewardship Council, together with its Industry participants, is advocating for a new category of Industry-Led Schemes as part of the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act.
“The idea being it would compel importers and suppliers of batteries and other products to join an accredited product stewardship scheme, creating a level playing field,” said Chaplin.
“This form of light regulation ensures that voluntary product stewardship schemes like B-cycle can achieve full industry participation, sustaining a viable budget to maintain the Scheme. At the same time, it allows B-cycle to be flexible and nimble, to adapt according to industry needs and changing markets.
“We could radically transform the stewardship environment so that the current safety and environmental battery problems could be solved in a much safer, shorter, and cost-effective way,” said Chaplin.
Looking ahead, Chaplin is aware EV batteries, and light mobility vehicle batteries such as those from e-bikes and e-scooters, are going to become a huge waste stream over the next decade.
Another issue, she adds, is vapes, most of which are single use and of low quality. Each one can catch fire if punctured or crushed. While the Commonwealth Government ban on all vapes except those obtained by prescription is a step in the right direction, it also limits the ability to engage producers. Chaplin said B-cycle has the capacity and willingness to provide a national network for vapes but is limited in its ability to do so in the absence of a viable funding model.
Looking ahead, there are a few things that Chaplin has on her wish list. In the immediate future she wants people to keep batteries out of regular household waste and recycling bins, and to tape used battery terminals before taking them to B-cycle Drop off points.
Chaplin expects to see a dedicated working group with industry representation established to take a deep dive into how the country can make sure electric vehicle battery market failures are addressed.
“We’re also looking to do a scheme review,” she said. We’ve been underway now for almost two years and there have also been some important learnings. The review will look at the fundamentals to ensure we build in efficiencies and also deliver long term sustainability and safety for the battery industry. We plan to invite ideas from our partners to think outside the box, for example, exploring if there would be benefit from moving to a differentiated levy based on chemistry type.”