EU states slow to ban mercury in batteries

Battery industry admits that hopes of cheaper recycling postponed "for at least a year"

A majority of EU countries have still not implemented a directive requiring no further use of mercury in non-rechargeable consumer batteries from the beginning of this year, it has emerged. European manufacturers have admitted that, as a result, consumer battery recycling will continue to be more expensive than it need be for at least a year longer than they had hoped. Ten EU governments have been sent a first legal warning for failing to implement the directive on time, ENDS Daily has learned.

EU countries agreed in 1998 to limit the mercury content of zinc carbon and alkaline manganese consumer batteries to 5 parts per million by January 2000 - effectively a ban (ENDS Daily 22 October 1998). EU manufacturers voluntarily phased out mercury use in the mid-1990s, so the ban affects only the estimated 5-10% of these types of batteries that are imported from outside the EU, often inside appliances.

European battery makers are keen to see the ban implemented, nevertheless. Even a small proportion of mercury-containing batteries prevents recycling along with other metal wastes in steel furnaces. Instead they must be treated by specialist recyclers at much greater cost (ENDS Daily 31 May).

The European Portable Battery Association (EPBA) had hoped that the ban would enable recycling to switch to the cheaper steel furnaces by 2003. Due to the delays in national implementation of the ban, Raynald Dallenbach of the EPBA told ENDS Daily today, it now "could be something like 2004 or 2005" before this was possible.

"There's no real threat to the environment," he said, "it just means the recycling cost will be higher for a longer time." Lax import controls could mean the delay lasts even longer in practice, he said.

Meanwhile, European Commission officials have told ENDS Daily that ten EU countries have been sent "formal notices" for failing to transpose the mercury ban into national law on time. They are Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the UK, Ireland, Greece, Denmark, Spain and Portugal. The Commission is currently assessing responses to its warning.

* In a related development, the German environment ministry yesterday announced cabinet approval for a draft law to implement the directive. The ministry said it hoped the measure would enter into force next April, after debate in both parliamentary houses.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111, European Portable Battery Association, tel: +32 2 774 9602; German environment ministry, tel: +49 30 25 55 00, and press release.

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