Battery recycling in need of a recharge
Battery usage is at an all-time high, but less than 15
percent of all spent batteries find their way into recycling bins
By Gavin Phipps
Sunday, Aug 22, 2004,Page 17
1999, when the Environmental Protection Administration began a program to
raise the nation's low recycling rate for used batteries, the total amount
of discarded was 3,500 tonnes -- of which only 29 tonnes were recycled.
Slag is produced when non-organic wastes
such as batteries are treated by plasma torch technology. The
resulting material is free of toxins and can be used for industrial
and commercial purposes.
COURTESY OF PEAT INTERNATIONAL
Since then, the nation hasn't sat idly by and mass collection programs
are now commonplace throughout the country.
Sadly, the nation's ever-increasing reliance on battery powered devices
has meant that reducing the number of discarded batteries -- while at the
same time increasing the amount recycled -- has been thwarted by
increasing consumer usage and, some feel, inadequate education.
"The number of mobile phones in use today has increased almost tenfold
over the past four to five years, which of course had led to an equal, if
not greater, increase in the number of discarded batteries," said battery
collection agent Michael Lee. "If something is not done about it
Taiwan could be looking at a grim future with widespread groundwater
contamination and other problems caused by toxins."
Based on the revenue
collected through taxes levied on battery manufacturers, which are added
for recycling purposes, the amount of spent batteries stood at roughly
10,000 tonnes last year. Of this only 1,017 tonnes, or less than 15
percent, was collected and exported for processing in France or the US,
where all of Taiwan's used batteries are currently sent for recycling.
The Russian-designed plasma torch creates
incredible heat to divide toxic non-organic wastes into re-usable
PHOTO COURTESY OF PEAT
The remaining 8,500-plus tonnes were dumped in landfills or incinerated
in organic waste incineration plants, where dioxins and other toxic wastes
seeped into groundwater sources and returned to earth in the form of acid
While the government
plans to increase the amount of recycled batteries to 2,000 tonnes this
year, non-recycling of spent batteries in Taiwan has become so great an
environmental problem that the American Chamber of Commerce included the
issue in this year's Taiwan White Paper. The report made
recommendations that included raising citizen awareness, rethinking the
existing recycling model and the need to encourage an overall reduction in
One major factor
behind Taiwan's overwhelming cache of spent batteries is its heavy
reliance on cheap zinc-carbon batteries. Taiwan might consider itself a
developed country, but when it comes to zinc carbon battery expenditure it
ranks alongside China as one of the world's most prolific users.
A staggering 65 percent of the batteries used by the nation's gadget
hungry masses are of the zinc carbon type, which, though cheaper, have a
shorter life span and are more harmful to the environment than alkaline
batteries. This number comes frighteningly close to China's 75 percent
reliance on zinc-carbon batteries and is a far cry from those of other
developed Asian regions such as South Korea and Hong Kong, where
zinc-carbon batteries account for no more than 25 percent of the total
number of batteries used.
"In the US and Britain, the rates of alkaline battery usage are at
almost 90 percent and in terms of developed countries you'd expect to see
Taiwan amongst them," said Andrew Houlberg, General Manager of Gillette
Taiwan. "But instead [Taiwan] looks almost like China."
Although not wanting to apportion the blame on any one agency,
Houlberg, whose company owns Duracell, feels the nation's over use of
zinc-carbon batteries is related to the way in which advertising campaigns
are closely intertwined with Asian ideals, where face is more important
than the facts.
"Comparative marketing is frowned upon and considered to be
confrontational," he said. "It's not illegal, but we're unable to show
that alkaline batteries outlast zinc ones ... as soon as you set to show
that the Easter Bunny with the [alkaline] batteries lasts five times
longer than the one with zinc batteries, somebody files a complaint with
the fair trade commission."
Comparative advertising may be a no-no, but Houlberg continues, albeit
more tactfully than he'd like, to promote the use of alkaline batteries
and the importance of recycling.
Over the past year, Houlberg has led campaigns aimed at reaching out to
the expat community and has worked closely with several well-known foreign
And his message hasn't gone unheeded. Aware of the mounting problem and
the need for an increase in the amount of batteries collected for
recycling, the government has already set quotas for the coming two years.
It aims to increase the recycling level to 20 percent by next year and
hopes to reach 30 percent by the year after. These numbers still lag far
behind those of European nations like the Netherlands, however, where 75
percent of all used batteries are now recycled.
According to David Yu , Chairman of the Taipei County Recycling
Committee , the government's projected figures are probably as
good as it's going to get until a serious rethink is given to the way in
which recycling programs are organized.
"The spent battery collection system works like an industry. It's
solely reliant on incentive rather than education," he said. "People do it
to make money. They don't necessarily care where the batteries end up,
only that they've been paid."
At present there are three distinct stages of collection, each of which
offers a different rate per kilo of spent batteries. First, tire
collectors, a group comprising predominantly private individuals, receive
on average NT$12 per kilo from one of the 1,000 official battery
collection agencies. These companies are in turn paid an average of
between NT$15 to NT$20 per kilo by one of the only two companies currently
licensed to ship batteries abroad. And, in turn, these companies are paid
between NT$20 and NT$23 by the government for every kilo shipped out of
"The government has certainly made an effort to increase collection,
but I think that it needs to make a concerted attempt to make both its
policy and its aims a lot clearer," said Yu. "It's not only a question of
telling people to do this because you'll be rewarded at the end. It's a
matter of telling them why they are doing it, which is, of course, more
important in the long run."
Recycling campaigns at national, county and city levels now include
fliers, which inform local residents where they can take their spent
batteries and poster campaigns, which include cartoon educational
pictorials explaining the merits of battery recycling. While local
authorities may feel such campaigns are reaping benefits, those in the
trade feel that neither local nor central governments have done enough to
"Everyone knows that convenience stores have collection bins. But how
many people remember to take their old batteries out with them when they
pop out for the milk? And how many people do see putting batteries in them
when you go to the convenience store?" Lee said. "I think this is where a
strong campaign that incorporates television advertising and bill-boarding
would make a big difference."
Spent battery bins are now located in nearly all of the nation's
convenience stores, camera stores and supermarkets and are also affixed to
garbage trucks. These boxes, however, account for a small fraction of the
total number of batteries collected nationwide.
The most productive collection sites have proven to be those found in
schools. Currently every elementary, junior high and high school in Taipei
City has at least one spent battery bin and thousands of other schools
nationwide have their own boxes. According to a spokesperson for the
Taipei City Government, the combined weight of these bins accounts for
roughly 10 tonnes of the monthly collection rate for Taipei City.
In order to boost the tonnage of spent batteries collected at schools
as well as to raise awareness of the need to recycle batteries across the
board, the American Chamber of Commerce is currently planning its own
recycling campaign. Set to begin in early October, the program is aimed at
raising awareness within both the expat and local communities.
"We're in the process of putting together an education campaign with
the environment protection committee that will create publicity through
the American School," said Executive Director of the American Chamber of
Commerce Richard Vuylsteke. "The aim is not to compete with local schools,
but to help them to promote and generate more publicity about battery
The batteries themselves and the individuals and groups willing to
promote the need for recycling may not be in short supply, but the lack of
an indigenous facility capable of recycling any increase in the amount of
batteries collected remains an issue in itself.
According to a government report, a 30 percent recycling-rate would be
the bare minimum before it would consider investing in a waste treatment
plant capable of processing batteries.
Regardless of the government's statistically based concerns about
building a NT$60 million-plus plant, US based PEAT International has
already taken the initiative. Along with applying for a license to collect
spent batteries, the company has also constructed its own hazardous waste treatment facility in Kaoshiung.
Located in Kaoshiung's Linhai Industrial Park , PEAT's plasma
waste conversion plant is Taiwan's first fully functional facility. While
still in the trial phase of operations the plant will, according to
President of PEAT International Jose Capote, be running and hopefully
processing waste -- which will include batteries -- by September.
Using plasma torch technology the plant is able to process up to 10
tonnes of non-organic wastes contaminated with PCBs and other
organo-chlorides and recover lead, mercury, nickel and other heavy metals
per day. In turn, the heavy metals and slag produced at the plant can be
sold on for industrial use.
"We'd like to see a much higher increase in the amount of recycled
batteries and support any program that is being done to collect and
recycle batteries," said Capote. "We've applied for a license to collect
and have to the space to store batteries."
If all goes to plan and the Lin Hai site proves its worth then PEAT has
further plans to build a 50-tonnes-per-day plant: Such a plant will
eliminate the need to export spent batteries and allow Taiwan to reap the
rewards of its spent battery recycling awareness and collection programs.