Manufacturers and resellers of batteries for devices including laptops and phones will be obliged to dispose of spent batteries, and new batteries will be restricted in the amount of mercury and cadmium they can contain, according to a Europe-wide law agreed by European Union lawmakers in Brussels late last night.
Battery makers will have to register in the countries where they manufacture, and will be obliged to label their products with accurate information about their performance.
The directive bans the sale of portable batteries containing more than 0.0005 percent mercury and 0.002 percent cadmium, except for emergency and alarm systems, medical equipment and cordless power tools. Batteries are defined as portable if they weigh less than 1kg.
The law aims to reduce sharply the amount of harmful substances that leak out from used batteries when they are dumped with regular waste in landfills. In 2002, some 158,270 tons of portable batteries and accumulators were sold in the 15 states that were then members of the European Union.
Only six of the EU's 25 members today have collection systems for spent batteries. Belgium collects 59 percent of all spent batteries, Sweden 55 percent, Austria 44 percent, Germany 39 percent, the Netherlands 32 percent and France 16 percent.
The law lays down minimum collection rates of 25 percent of annual sales by 2012 and 45 percent by 2016 for all 25 member states. Public authorities will have to provide collection points in all neighborhoods, and electronics stores and other sellers of portable batteries will have to accept used batteries, regardless of when and where the batteries were purchased.
But the biggest burden will be felt by battery producers, who will have to cover the cost of recycling and disposing of the substances inside the batteries they collect.
The European Parliament and the Council of Ministers set a target on Tuesday for recycling 50 percent of batteries not containing cadmium or lead, 75 percent of batteries containing cadmium, and 65 percent of those containing lead.
The European Parliament and the Council agreed that small producers could be exempt from these financial responsibilities.
Battery makers will have to come clean about the true performance of their products. Under existing legislation, battery makers can make exaggerated claims about the power their batteries contain. The European Parliament pushed for the labeling clause.
"This provision was not in the original proposal but Parliament thought the consumer should be able to choose higher-performance and long-life batteries," said Johannes Blokland, the Dutch member of the European Parliament who took a lead in the debate.
"Cheap batteries are not necessarily the best choice for the environment if they have a shorter life. As of 2009, labels on all batteries and accumulators must show their real capacity," he said.
The European Commission, which drafted the new law, welcomed the agreement reached by the European Parliament and the 25 national governments. "The EU gives high priority to making sure that batteries and accumulators no longer cause health and environmental problems due to the heavy metals they contain," said Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas.
"Now it is time to start implementing the provisions of the new battery directive. The faster we start to collect and recycle batteries, the better for the environment," he said.
Around 160,000 tons of portable batteries for consumer devices are sold annually in the EU, along with 800,000 tons of automotive batteries and 190,000 tons of industrial batteries. The batteries may contain mercury, lead or cadmium - considered hazardous waste under existing legislation - and nickel, copper, zinc, manganese or lithium.