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Vol. 34 - No. 4 [Cover Story] Bringing Back Blue Skies

March 2004

The Push for Battery Recycling /p>

The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has launched a campaign this year aimed at raising public awareness about the importance of recycling used batteries. Taiwan has a low recycling rate for batteries of 17% -- the rest, amounting to about 7,400 metric tons a year, are simply thrown away. When those batteries are burned in incinerators, dioxins and other toxic wastes are released into the atmosphere and often return to earth as acid rain.

To improve the recycling rate, the EPA has adopted a two-pronged strategy targeted at communities and schools throughout Taiwan. One program involves a raffle drawing. Individuals who return ten batteries before May 31 to their local convenience store -- 7-11, Family Mart, O-K, or others -- can receive an "environmental action card." Using the password on this card, they may log onto the EPA web site on specific days to see if they have won a prize. The first drawing was already held on February 5, and three others are scheduled this year: on June 5 (Earth Day), September 28 (Teacher's Day), and December 25 (Christmas Day). The prizes include notebook computers, bicycles, and digital cameras.

The EPA has distributed 50 environmental action cards to each of several thousand convenience stores nationwide, but if stores have run out of cards, consumers are advised to try another convenience store or a local EPA office.

The EPA's second program focuses on students in 1,000 selected schools island-wide, from the primary level through college. The EPA gives these schools NT$10,000 or more, depending on the student enrollment, and stipulates that the money be used in a school-sponsored activity -- poster campaign, game, art exhibition, sports contest, or other event -- aimed at promoting battery recycling.

The raffle contest organized by the EPA resembles a program jointly sponsored last December by the Taipei City government and Gillette (Taiwan) Inc., maker of Duracell batteries. That event had an unfortunate outcome, though, when the city's Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and Gillette became unwitting victims of a financial scam organized by an unscrupulous businessman affiliated with an environmental foundation. Under the rules of the month-long campaign, consumers who turned in ten batteries at their local convenience stores would receive numbered coupons. The numbers could then be entered in a lucky draw contest, with prizes awarded to the winners.

To help fund the campaign, Gillette and the EPD each contributed money and Gillette also donated prizes. The EPD subcontracted the organization of the raffle to the now-discredited foundation. The police have charged the man responsible for making the lucky draw, the husband of a foundation employee, with "illegal appropriation and forged documents" and released him on NT$50,000 bail. He is accused of falsifying the list of raffle winners with fictitious names and then pocketing some of the prizes. With police help, the EPD has since reconstituted the original list and distributed prizes, including a number of laptop computers, to the rightful winners.

"Our participation in the program was driven by a desire to help the public by educating consumers about recycling," Gillette said in a statement. "We had absolutely no involvement in any misleading actions. We always operate under the highest ethical standards and we would never condone any measures to mislead consumers."

Despite this unfortunate episode, Gillette has not given up on trying to heighten citizen awareness about battery recycling. Andrew Houlberg, the company's general manager in Taiwan, is a strong advocate of the importance of proper recycling. He explains that if consumers are encouraged to use long-lasting alkaline batteries instead of the zinc-carbon batteries that currently have a 65% market share, used battery disposal could be reduced to about one-third the current volume. Manufacturers who participate in the recycling program by paying fees of NT$20 per kilogram of used batteries may display an environmentally friendly logo -- four green arrows -- on their packaging, though manufacturers doubt they receive much promotional value by doing so.

The EPA aims to raise the recycling rate to 20% in 2005 and then to 30% in 2006. It calculates that a 30% recycling rate would provide enough volume to induce companies to invest in treatment of used batteries. The cost of setting up such a facility is estimated by EPA to be at least US$6 million for the smallest scale operation. The materials recovered include lead, mercury, cadmium, and nickel, which are sold to steel refiners or used in other industrial processes.

Spent batteries are currently exported to the United States or France, where they are recycled. "Many companies here would be interested in treating used batteries, but they will need government encouragement and also enough volume to make it work," Houlberg says. "Instead of exporting used batteries to be recycled, put the money into local businesses that can do it here."

At least one overseas group is also entering the market. PEAT International of Northbrook, Illinois, which is currently completing construction of a hazardous and medical waste treatment facility at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, is also part of a consortium planning a multipurpose waste management center for Taiwan. A site has not yet been decided on for the plant, which would handle batteries in addition to other forms of waste.