Government appoints battery law enforcer

The National Weights and Measurements Laboratory will make sure electronics manufacturers follow environmental rules on hazardous materials and device design
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government has appointed an authority to make sure device makers stick to UK environmental guidelines for batteries.

The National Weights and Measurements Laboratory (NWML) will take on the responsibility of enforcing the Batteries and Accumulators (Placing on the Market) Regulations 2008. The regulations specify the levels of cadmium and mercury allowed in batteries, control the markings on batteries, and set design requirements for manufacturers of electronic goods that contain batteries.

Ian Pearson, the business and economics minister, said NWML was well-placed to enforce battery regulations, as it already has responsibility for enforcing the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Regulations (RoHS), a directive adopted by the EU in July 2006 to limit the use of heavy metals and hazardous substances in electronics goods.

"Building on their experience and success in enforcing similar environmental product legislation, NWML will have an important role to play in ensuring that anyone wishing to place new batteries on the UK market complies with this legislation," Pearson said in a statement on Monday.

If a company is found to be contravening RoHS regulations, the NWML will work with that business to redress the situation. It can use informal warnings, formal warnings and, ultimately, prosecution under environmental laws to do this. However, the agency has not made any prosecutions since the EU's RoHS regulations were enacted into UK law in 2008. In addition, the NWML does not publicise which companies have been found to be breaking regulations, except in extreme circumstances.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace told ZDNet UK that the NWML approach to enforcing RoHS could send the wrong message to companies.

"If they talk to companies rather than prosecute: yes, it encourages companies to be open, but it leaves NWML in a weak position," said Kevin Brigden, a scientist at the Greenpeace Science Unit, on Tuesday. "If someone is found to be breaking the regulations, they don't get any comeback."

Although the NWML is technically the right body to oversee environmental law surrounding batteries as it already takes care of compliance with RoHS regulations, there are questions as to how much testing the agency does to enforce RoHS, according to Brigden.

"To what extent will they be doing real testing [of batteries]?" said Brigden "I know for RoHS they do some testing, but it is minimal."

In September, the UK adopted the EU's New Batteries Directive of 2006 into law. This replaced earlier legislation, dating back to 1991, which had failed to accomplish its aim of keeping batteries and their hazardous contents out of landfills. Brigden claimed that the New Batteries Directive, although it went further than previous environmental legislation, contained inadequate targets for recycling and collection. Targets for the safe collection of batteries containing cadmium, lead, or other metals such as mercury are 25 percent by 2012 and 45 percent by 2016. Of those batteries collected, 75 percent of the cadmium, 65 percent of the lead, and 50 percent of the other metals must be recycled.

However, this still means that, potentially, a quarter of the cadmium, 35 percent of the lead and 50 percent of the other metals collected could go into landfill or be incinerated, said Brigden.

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