EU plans fast-track ban on mercury in batteries

Commission moves to enable more recycling as battery directive revision plan stalls

The European Commission is to push for a complete ban on mercury in most consumer batteries in the EU from end of the year, ENDS Daily has learned. The move is intended to support an increase in consumer battery recycling, Commission officials say, while a broader proposal to widen recycling requirements by revising the EU's 1991 battery directive remains stuck in the Commission's environment department.

Introducing a ban on mercury in consumer batteries such as the common alkaline manganese type will have little effect on the battery market, since EU manufacturers phased out its use of in 1993. Mercury-containing batteries imported from non-EU countries, which make up just 2% of the market, could be affected though.

Under an approach agreed last week, the mercury issue will be removed from the proposed directive revision and dealt with under the EU's far more rapid committee system. EU member state representatives will be asked to agree a "technical adaptation" to the 1991 directive on battery waste, to be effective from 1 January 1999.

Under the proposal, permitted mercury levels in alkaline manganese batteries would be cut from the current 250 parts per million (ppm) to 5ppm - the natural background level. Mercury in specialised "button cell" batteries would be limited to 2% at the same time.

The move could advance an EU ban on mercury in consumer batteries by four years. The Commission's environment department (DGXI) circulated first proposals for a revision of EU law on battery waste last July, hoping then to get a new law through all its legislative steps in time to come into force in 2002 (ENDS Daily 7 July 1997). However, the proposal has still not been agreed by commissioners, and officials now doubt that it could take effect until 2004.

Rapid removal of all mercury from consumer batteries will help the EU achieve new recycling targets for all batteries that are planned under the battery directive revision, officials say. Even low levels of mercury in batteries require the use of expensive extraction equipment before other metals can be reprocessed. Ensuring that all common consumer batteries are mercury free will reduce costs and increase the number of firms capable of recycling batteries.

The Commission's move is a victory for the European Portable Battery Manufacturers Association (EPBA) which has been urging the EU to ban mercury well before it introduces recycling targets for consumer batteries. It will also defuse a potential row with Sweden and Austria, which were permitted to maintain existing bans on mercury in batteries when they joined the EU in 1995 only until the end of 1998.

However, specialist battery recyclers say they are opposed to a fast-track ban on mercury. The European Battery Recyclers Association (EBRA) told ENDS Daily that current recycling processes were very cost -effective, increasing the retail price of an average battery by only 4%.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; EPBA, tel: +32 2774 9602; EBRA, tel: +33 1 53 45 84 84.

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