1 - How many types of batteries are there?

The Regulation (EU) 2023/1542 envisages five macro-groups: portable batteries; light means of transport battery (LMT); electric vehicles batteries; Starting, lighting and ignition batteries (or SLI batteries); industrial batteries.

According to the legislation, the waste is generated when “The holder discards or intends or is required to discard it”, which in the case of batteries, this happens, for example, when they are exhausted and need replacing.

The European Regulation on batteries and battery waste aims to prevent and reduce the negative effects of the production and management of battery waste on human health and the environment and aims to reduce the use of resources and promote practical application of the waste hierarchy.

This hierarchy was introduced by Directive 2008/98/EC as an order of priority for legislation and policy regarding waste prevention and management and provides:

a) prevention;

b) preparation for reuse;

c) recycling;

d) other types of recovery, for example energy recovery;

e) disposal.

Batteries can contain substances harmful to humans and the environment. Examples of these are: zinc, cadmium, mercury and lead. Yet, they also contain precious and recyclable raw materials (lead itself, nickel, rare earths, lithium, iron, zinc, manganese) which, if properly treated, can be recovered and re-used creating new resources and new products, such as photovoltaic panels, new batteries, car number plates and much more. Which means, for example, that for every ton of alkaline batteries collected and properly treated, over 300 kgs of zinc and 250 kgs of iron and nickel can be recovered.

In order to allow recycling of such waste, a separate collection and proper treatment are required.

According to the latest Eurostat data available, in 2021, 242,000 tonnes of portable batteries and accumulators were placed on the market across the European Union and 108,000 tonnes were collected. The ratio between the average annual sales of portable batteries and accumulators (calculated over the period 2018-2021) and the WB collected for recycling in 2021 is therefore 48%.

In Italy, according to the latest data from the National Coordination Center for Batteries and Accumulators (CDCNPA), more than 9,300 tons of battery waste were collected in 2023, while the collection of industrial and vehicle batteries was more than 125,000 tons.

It should be noted that the quantities accounted for by the CDCNPA relate to the waste collected through the Collective and Individual Systems: the WBs managed by third parties (not registered with the Coordination Center) who carry out the collection service independently, who have no obligation, do not appear.  

Unfortunately, due to their small size, portable batteries often escape the recycling pipeline, lying forgotten at the bottom of a drawer or box in the house, or on a shelf or even thrown in the rubbish bin as unsorted waste.

The European Regulation has introduced minimum collection objectives for the flow of battery waste with the aim of encouraging the recovery of secondary raw materials in order to introduce them into new production cycles without the need for new extractions from the ground.

The Regulation provides for the achievement of challenging collection rates: for portable batteries they are set at 45% by 2023, 63% by 2027 and 73% by 2030; for batteries for light means of transport (LMT) to 51% by 2028, 61% by 2031.

The batteries undergo different treatment operations according to type and chemical composition. This is essential to avoid the dispersion of polluting substances in the environment and maximise the recovery of recyclable materials. After collection, this waste undergoes an initial selection phase, which can take place manually or through automatic processes. Batteries are mainly divided by shape and type of chemistry. The following types are mainly distinguished:

  • Alkaline or zinc-carbon batteries
  • Lithium batteries
  • Nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal-hydride batteries
  • Lead acid batteries

Depending on the chemistry and specific recycling technology used, the selected batteries can be subjected to two different types of processes, or a serial combination of the two:

  • Pyrometallurgical: after an initial grinding phase, the so-called “black-mass” is obtained, i.e. the mix of cathode and anodic powders that make up the battery. This is then introduced into special furnaces and then used in secondary metallurgy processes in order to recover the main metals that compose it.
  • Hydrometallurgical: Unlike pyrometallurgical treatment, which uses thermal processes to melt batteries and obtain new materials, hydrometallurgical treatment uses chemical or biological processes that involve the leaching of metals from compounds in solution. The type of chemical compounds obtainable and their recovery efficiency strongly depends on the type of reagents and chemical reactions used.

Any store selling portable batteries (e.g. supermarkets, malls and various shops, including tobacconists) must ensure the take back of the inherent waste by means of a container visibly placed near the sales counters without the obligation to purchase a new product.

The same happens with the other types of batteries: whenever they are replaced by a car electrician, workshop or dealer, they must also take back the waste.

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