S'pore not ready for battery recycling rules

Mandating take-back facilities for portable batteries "very good" but solution may not be practical in Singapore due to consumer mindset, says industry observer.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Mandating take-back facilities for portable batteries is a "very good" move, but one industry observer familiar with the local green movement reckons that consumer recycling mindsets in the country are still lacking for such directives to work.

Responding to a recent development in the United Kingdom where battery sellers will soon be required to provide recycling containers for users to return their batteries, Howard Shaw, executive director of the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), said battery recycling should be in place to complement efforts to reduce the use of conventional use-and-dispose batteries.

From Feb. 1, all distributors in the U.K. that sell 32kg or more of portable batteries in a year--either in a physical store, online or by mail order--are required to provide a take-back facility free of charge for consumers, according to a document released in December 2009 by the U.K Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The Department said the amount is equivalent to about one pack of four AA batteries a day, and the directive also includes button cells such as those used in watches, and batteries in mobile phones, laptops and electronic appliances.

Batteries are a common problem, Shaw told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview, as toxic waste or fumes would end up in the environment regardless of whether batteries are disposed via landfill or incineration. "No matter how good your technology, a lot of these chemicals [present in the batteries] are not easy to screen out," he pointed out.

However, a similar directive to ensure batteries are properly recycled may not yet be practical in Singapore, he noted. One major challenge here is the lack of infrastructure to recycle batteries, he said, adding that consumer mindset is another obstacle.

"We are still fairly early on in nurturing people's attitudes to participate in voluntary recycling programs," Shaw said. "We've received a lot of queries here at the SEC [asking where to recycle batteries] but the interest level is confined to a very small minority."

Even if the collection of batteries is introduced at retail outlets, incentives such as offering a discount for new batteries, may be necessary to encourage consumers to return used ones, he added.

Enforcement will be challenging as well, he noted. The 32kg requirement, he said, will mean the inclusion of "every petrol station [and] every 7-11" convenience store in Singapore. "Logistically this is going to be a nightmare to operate, and it's going to be tiresome to enforce," he added.

In addition, such measures appear to penalize sellers--not consumers--so it may be limited to some extent in terms of effectiveness, Shaw said. Regulation that targets specifically consumers may eventually be employed in Singapore, he concluded.

User education is a long-term investment, he said, noting that it would take a while for Singaporeans to be diligent in their recycling habits and hence "some form of regulation" to spur adoption may be needed.

In Japan, for instance, households are required to segregate their trash into different recycling bins, and if the waste is sorted into the wrong bin, no collection will be made, he said. And in certain boroughs of London, users will be issued a fine if authorities find recyclable waste in their mixed waste bins.

"There are so many cases of regulation that [can help] Singapore get where we want to go," Shaw said. "We did it with chewing gum and smoking in public places, and definitely [safeguarding] the environment is more important than chewing gum ending up on pavement."

Asian retailer chips in
Hong Kong-based Dairy Farm Group, which operates retail outlets across Asia including supermarket chain Cold Storage and convenience store cluster Wellcome, said in an e-mail interview the company has availed collection containers for used batteries in its domestic market, despite not being required to provide battery recycling facilities in the jurisdictions it operates in.

"Some of our businesses in Hong Kong do provide collection boxes or recycling bins for customers in collaboration with certain battery brands on a voluntary basis," a spokesperson noted. "We will cooperate fully with the local governments, if such facilities are required, to help reduce pollution to the environment."

The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, which oversees environmental issues in Singapore, did not respond by press time.

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