Batteries, new EU Regulation: “It will solve some problems, but it will create new ones”

From portable ones to lithium-ion ones up to large industrial accumulators, cells and batteries represent the technology of the future for a green European Union. The Commission presents guidelines to regulate its production, use and recycling. Interview with Peter Coonen, Chairman of Eucobat, the European association of national battery collection systems

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On 10 December 2020, the European Commission officially presented the proposal for a new Regulation to set the production, use and recycling of batteries in Europe. The measure is strategic both in terms of developing the Green Deal and Circular Economy, and because it aims to respond to the environmental, health and production needs that an increasingly wireless and green Europe will have in the management of life cycle of batteries placed on the internal market whether they are portable, for motor vehicles, industrial and for electric vehicles. On the subject, Erion interviewed Peter Coonen, Chairman of Eucobat, the European association of national battery collection systems.

The European Commission has proposed a new regulation for sustainable batteries. What is the cause of this provision?
The aim of the current EU legislation (Batteries Directive 2006/66/EC) was to improve the environmental impact of batteries. On the one hand, the current Directive bans or limits some hazardous substances in batteries such as mercury, cadmium and lead and on the other hand imposes minimum standards and targets for the collection and recycling of waste batteries. The current directive dates to 2006 and is written to regulate the batteries that were popular at that time, i.e., typical household batteries, small rechargeable batteries and lead starter batteries. Today’s batteries are far more complex. Batteries power cars, busses, scooters, bicycles and countless types of wireless appliances. They have become very large and powerful as well as very small and light, depending on the application. For some of today’s batteries, second life applications are a real option. The newly proposed EU battery regulation has a much wider scope and aims to deal with all aspects of the life cycle of all types of today’s batteries and promotes a circular approach with closed material loops.

What are the main changes that the new Regulation will introduce in the countries of the Union?
The new EU battery Regulation wants to create a level playing field for the production of sustainable batteries within the EU market to support green mobility and reduce emissions, as well provide harmonized rules for the battery recycling market. The EU aims to stimulate investments in new battery technologies and in additional capacity to recycle the batteries of the future. Another issue that the Commission aims to solve are the social and environmental risks that are currently not covered by EU environmental law, such as more transparency about the sourcing of raw materials, about hazardous substances and about the untapped potential for offsetting the environmental impacts of battery life cycles.

What changes this new regulation will bring to the battery industry?
The proposed regulation imposes stringent conditions on industrial, automotive and EV batteries produced or imported in EU. Due diligence schemes must be set up to provide transparency in the supply chain for raw materials and substances. Carbon footprint reporting will be established, new batteries will have to contain a mandatory minimum of recycled raw materials and many more.

A novelty is the so-called “electronic passport”
Some large batteries will get an “electronic passport” that details relevant information about the battery so that it can be re-used or recycled safely and efficiently. Eucobat asks to amend new regulation so that the information on the status of the battery (waste/not waste/repurposed, EPR responsibility) is available in the Battery Passport. Therefore, PROs should have access to the information on the Battery Passport, and that they can change the content when required.

Are there any other significant changes envisaged in the proposed Regulation?
Design requirements will be introduced for portable batteries. The new regulation enforces labelling of batteries.  A QR code must be put on certain batteries or on their packaging to help consumers make the best choice. The proposed regulation deals with the removability of portable batteries from appliances but leaves too much room for interpretation. For safety reasons and to ensure a higher collection of batteries, Eucobat asks that the EU imposes that all batteries must be removed from any separately collected WEEE. The only exception can be the batteries that are intended to ensure a continuity of power supply for safety, performance, medical or data integrity reasons.

An important news will concern the Second Life of batteries.
The new regulation also provides a basic framework for Second Life applications of used EV and industrial batteries and clarifies the responsibilities and liabilities the original producer and of the operator that repurposes the battery and makes them available on the market for a Second Life. This should enable more batteries to be re-used and refurbished in the future. These changes have a wide and deep reach and will have a significant impact on battery development, production and distribution.

Several innovations have been planned to regulate the entire life cycle of the batteries. Which are the most important?
The main changes are all related to the creating a single European market and a level playing field in the domain of design and production of batteries as well as in the field of battery recycling. Developing recycling technologies is capital intensive. The harmonization of the recycling market as proposed in the new regulation aims to help create EU-wide economies of scale necessary for such investments. The focus of the Commission shifts from traditional batteries, such as alkaline portable batteries and automotive/industrial (lead) batteries to lithium rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles which will become a key battery market for the future.

Speaking of the collection target for portable batteries, this should go from the current 45% of the market to 70% by 2030. Is this an achievable percentage?
Eucobat has asked independent consultants to carry out studies about this topic. These Eucobat studies indicate that the new targets are wholly unrealistic. The collection target is sometimes even higher than the volume of portable batteries that is available for collection. The collection target is based on the average sales of the last 3 years but in reality, most batteries are in use for 5-7 years before they can be collected for recycling. In a market like lithium-ion batteries that grow very quickly year after year this leads to collection targets that are higher than the volume of batteries consumers actually disposes of for collection and recycling. Eucobat asks that the EU changes the regulation immediately to include a reporting obligation and collection target based on batteries available for collection rather than on batteries put on market. This is an essential point and we will make every effort to explain this again to the EU.

What will be the biggest challenge that the new regulation will impose on producer responsibility organizations that manage battery waste?
The biggest challenge for PROs dealing with portable batteries is without doubt the collection target, going from 45% to 70% in 2030. Moreover, there is a possibility that in the future there may be an additional collection target for batteries of “light means of transport”, as e-bikes, steps and hoverboards. This will present another significant challenge in achieving future collection targets. Eucobat will continue to discuss with the EU about fair and reasonable targets but it is clear that PROs and producers must make major efforts to significantly increase the collection rate of portable batteries soon.

What is Eucobat’s position on non-portable batteries?
The new regulation imposes a mandatory physical take back and reverse logistics for industrial and automotive batteries. In other words, if you sell industrial and automotive batteries, you must physically take back such batteries even if they have a negative value and even if you have not sold them. The financing of such batteries will be another huge challenge to overcome for PROs and producers. Eucobat advocates financial guarantees for large industrial batteries and batteries of electric vehicles to prevent costs for the waste management of orphan batteries falling on society or on the remaining producers.

How to overcome the regulatory gaps on online sales?
Portable batteries are increasing sold through online marketplaces, often directly to consumers from a supplier located in another member state. In some cases, there is insufficient transparency for PROs and local authorities. Not all online marketplaces assume their environmental obligations in all member states where they are active. To make sure that internet sellers fairly contribute to the circular economy, Eucobat proposes that these marketplaces should be held liable for all the legal obligations of the producers, if the producer doesn’t comply directly.

Will the Commission still have to work on the new legislation?
The proposed regulation has a very wide scope and touches on every part of the life cycle of batteries. It will seriously impact all parties involved in battery development, production, distribution, collection, re-use and recycling. The proposed regulation solves some longstanding issues but also creates new ones. Eucobat and other organizations will continue to try and make the final regulation fairer and more realistic. It is nevertheless clear that the final regulation will present many challenges and that we will all have to work and be creative to meet many new targets.