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Shared financial responsibility needed for end-of-life batteries

Ecocycle provides national recycling solutions for industrial, commercial, and post-consumer products including batteries, mercury-bearing lighting waste and dental amalgams, and all e-waste, including mobile phones, computers, TVs, vapes, e-cigarettes and X-rays. Ecocycle and sister company, EcoBatt, operate a national post-consumer household battery collection network with more than 7000 collection kiosks deployed at supermarkets, hardware stores and associated retailers.

In 2023, EcoBatt welcomed Coles, JB HiFi and The Good Guys retail stores who also have installed battery collection kiosks. The kiosks are equipped with advanced sensor technology to report on fill levels, internal temperature, and other operational state-of-health data.

All Ecobatt and Ecocycle battery kiosks are company owned and are recognised as best-in-industry to ensure safe and secure collections of spent household batteries and mobile phones. With automated routing software and service scheduling, a range of purpose-built DG battery transport vehicles provide a cost-effective collection and transportation option for post-consumer battery waste recycling services in Australia.

In addition to mixed household battery collections, Ecocycle operates recycling services for all battery chemistries from micro-mobility, hybrid and electric vehicles, and solar energy storage devices. These large batteries require specific solutions for their safe transport, handling, charge neutralisation and resource recovery. EcoBatt also offer ADG-approved bulk mixed battery storage bins with 600/800-litre capacity, EV battery safety boxes, and EV fire-safe containers designed for the safe transport of accident damaged vehicles.

EcoBatt is also the Australian agent for CellBlock (USA) fire containment systems offering a non-toxic lithium fire, heat, and smoke suppressant, specialist lithium-ion transportation drums, and industrial-grade emergency safety response kits that suit most industries. They are also suitable for most commercial work settings that may handle potentially damaged or physically distressed lithium-ion cells from micro-mobility and energy storage assemblies, and also for retail and household solutions.    

This year Ecocycle commissioned the design of energy discharge control equipment to enable the safe return of residual energy from end-of-life EV and solar battery energy storage devices to the electricity grid for reuse. The residual energy stored at end-of-life for EV batteries can be equivalent to electricity requirement for a day of an average size family home. It is intended that energy returned to the grid will qualify for inclusion for Scope Three ESG reporting as an effective environmental solution.

In 2023, the greatest damage to waste management and recycling industry assets were incorrectly disposed lithium-ion batteries and single-use vapes, as well as e-cigarettes, which were accidently crushed in the waste collection trucks at kerb-side collections, landfills, MRFs and transfer stations. Millions of single-use vapes and e-cigarettes are disposed every month and lithium batteries cause headlines as trucks, kerb-side bin services, waste compactors  and shredders experience daily fires. The Federal Government’s ban on personal vape importation and commercial possession and sales expected by the end 2024 is of no surprise, but the current waste problem with vapes remains. The question of who shall fund end-of-life, single-use vape collection and their recycling services remains unresolved, according to Ecocycle’s Zoltan Sekula.

“A lack of consumer education and point of sale information is one of the reasons for low recycling rates for household battery recovery,” he said. “This hinders the industry from achieving economies of scale while providing a national collection network.”

If suitable amendments to the BSC Household Battery Product Stewardship collection funding model cannot be achieved urgently, the B-cycle scheme may suffer significant reputational damage with the unavoidable shutdown of collection networks, Sekula believes. Behind the scene, negotiations have been ongoing and EcoBatt may have limited options but to take the lead and ask for involvement of relevant federal government departments to avoid a reduction of collection services nationally. It would be regretful if any adverse developments would be to the disadvantage of consumers wanting to support battery recycling services. He said that we all know what happened with RedCycle, and no one wants to see a repeat of that. Rather, we want to learn from the lessons of that experience.

“Nobody could have predicted the rapidly escalating collection costs in the B-cycle scheme design or understood just how underfunded it is for the elite standards it is demanding,” said Sekula. “Very few understood the scheme from the start. It only ever in mind to fund 60 per cent of the recycling of batteries while agreeing that correct recycling number should be around $9 a kilo. Scaling back the collection services in all but metro areas could provide temporary relief, but then the scheme also would not be fair and equitable to the whole population of Australia. The Federal Government supports voluntary, industry-led product stewardship schemes to provide solutions for legislated priority waste products. At the same time there are options to regulate and impose a co-regulated or mandatory scheme to ensure market failure cannot occur.”

Read more: Making lithium batteries safer for EVs

Collectors must achieve economies of scale for the survival of the scheme or decide on bearing mounting losses, which is not an option for most. While the B-cycle scheme design reads well and its 2020 ACCC determination was positive, the majority of consumers are still unaware of their battery recycling opportunity. It is estimated that at least 80 per cent of household batteries are lost to landfills even after two years of scheme operation, according to Sekula.

EcoBatt provides a collection network with battery kiosks in easy reach to the majority of Australia’s population. European recycling rates as high as 65 to 70 per cent are reported, but financial returns in Europe are higher overall for recycling batteries. They also don’t have to contend with Australia’s tyranny of distance and sparse population densities. Sekula said it would be an unfortunate outcome if EcoBatt’s implementation of a national consumer battery recycling network would be found to be a futile exercise.

Sekula also points out that the recycling industry cannot implement government policy seeking to achieve the recycling of 80 per cent of all wastes generated in Australia by 2030 when producers of wastes attempt to limit proper shared financial responsibility. When errors in new product stewardship scheme designs are recognised, ignoring the risk of possible market failure lacks justification.

“It could be as simple as provisions of inflationary adjustments to be recognised on an annual basis,” he said. “Further, the willingness of consumers to participate in scheme funding for the environmental and social benefits provided has been established. Product stewardship collection services must be available to all Australians nationally at least on a cost recovery basis within a commercial setting.”

Some argue that overall, the option of voluntary product stewardship scheme is unlikely to offer fair and reasonable funding models, or seek high recycling rates in the quickest time possible to assure economies of scale for collectors and recyclers for resources otherwise lost to landfills. Therefore, collectors and the recycling Industry are left with difficult decisions to limit losses experienced and lost opportunities to future-proof their sector.

Overall, the outlook for 2024 is expected to be more challenging for many recyclers and collectors participating in national products stewardship schemes. Ecocycle is looking forward to the Federal Government’s proposed new framework and regulation for e-waste, solar PV and small household appliances. Sekula also highlights that single-use vapes, embedded batteries in toys, energy storage devices and electrical vehicle batteries also need to be addressed. It seems the recycling industry is expected to carry the burden of cost minimisation when every percentage point to increase recycling rates can only be achieved with investments that are not supported by waste producers who may have only short-term concerns, said Sekula.

“It is a shared responsibility and Ecocycle has come to the challenge but finds itself asking if all its efforts for innovation and investment as part of Australia’s leading circular economy are appropriate for household battery collections,” he said.

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