Life of a battery, and how the EU can save it from burnout

Batteries power all aspects of our lives, from the devices we use everyday to home appliances and electric vehicles. What if they could talk? We looked into batteries’ lifecycle and how the EU can save them from burnout.

Think of your smartphone’s battery, the ones inside your e-bike or toothbrush, or maybe those AAA batteries that power appliances and decorations in your home. Now, for a moment, just imagine they could see a therapist: what would they say? No matter what device they serve, nor where you live, in Europe and beyond: chances are, they would all report the same problems. The good news is: these are problems the EU has now a chance to fix.

From raw materials extraction to end-of-life treatment, batteries come with a wide range of environmental and social impacts, and as we increasingly rely on battery-powered tools in every aspect of our lives, these impacts are set to escalate.

In February and March 2022, the European Parliament will vote on a proposal for a new EU battery law. For the European Environmental Bureau, this is an unmissable opportunity to make our batteries more sustainable and mitigate their impacts all along their lifecycle.

Footprint nightmares

The extraction of the metals and minerals that compose our batteries comes at a high costs for the communities living close to the mines, as well as for the natural world –  and, as showed by a recent report by the EEB and Friends of the Earth Europe, there is no such thing as ‘green mining’.

On the environmental side, the impacts of mining range from natural habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, to soil erosion and the emission of dangerous pollutants into the air, water and soil. On the social side, local communities face degrading labour conditions, forced displacement, violence and intimidation. 50 of the 212 environmental defenders killed worldwide in 2019 were campaigning to stop mining projects.

Piotr Barczak, Senior Policy Officer for Waste at the EEB, told META:

“Europe’s energy and digital transition needs more and more batteries, but the batteries we make today have a deep and dirty footprint. It’s time to ensure sustainable sourcing and due diligence for all batteries.”

No second chance

The social and environmental cost of batteries would make one think they are extremely precious, and should be built to last as long as possible and be worth such investment. On the contrary, a worrying amount of portable batteries are non-rechargeable and single-use.

Green NGOs have been calling for a progressive phase out of disposable batteries by 2025 the latest, in line with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan.

Too young to fail, impossible to replace

Battery failure is also one of the most common problems for many consumer electronics, e-bikes and scooters. At the same time, too many batteries are either non-replaceable or non-repairable. This results in shorter product lifetime, increased electronic waste, loss of precious resources and unnecessary expenditure for consumers, as highlighted by a recent report by the EEB, the Right to Repair campaign and the University of Lund.

“By preventing battery replacement and repair, manufacturers are forcing us to ditch and replace our devices prematurely – but it doesn’t have to be like this”, said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, Policy Officer for product policy at the EEB.

“With the new Battery Regulation, the European Parliament and our governments have the power to fix this: all batteries should be replaceable, spare batteries should be made available, and large batteries should be repairable.”

Afterlife plans

Batteries contain valuable components that could keep serving a circular and resource efficient economy even once the original battery has stopped functioning. However, the lack of proper collection, treatment and recycling systems causes too many batteries to end up in the mixed waste bin.

To save precious resources from waste, the EEB calls for the EU Battery Regulation to set high collection rates for battery repair, reuse and recycling, and the promotion of Deposit Return Schemes (DRS); high recycling rates, and higher targets for recycled content in batteries by 2030.

The EU to the rescue?

From environmental justice to pollution prevention, resource efficiency and consumer protection, the EU Battery Regulation has the potential to address the many impacts of batteries on our society and nature, and become a landmark example of EU product policy.

Yet, green groups are concerned that the rules to create a sustainable European battery industry could come into effect far too late. Back in December, over 40 NGOs signed an open letter to Environment Ministries across te EU, asking them to avoid unnecessary and harmful delays.

As the law undergoes negotiations within the European Parliament and the Council, policy makers have a great power to make a difference. Schweitzer told META:

“It is not just about batteries. The Battery Regulation is a pioneering law that will inspire further product regulations. If the Parliament and governments lack ambition now, they will set a bad precedent for future legislation on products and circular economy”.