Pivot towards battery technologies: Is South Africa ready for the waste implications?

Environmental implications of battery disposalBatteries are part of everyday life and are widely used in South Africa and across the world to operate common electrical and electronic devices.  Batteries power many everyday devices, including remote controls, cellular phones and laptops but, it is the upsurge of electric cars that has driven up demand in the recent past.  Batteries can either be rechargeable or non-rechargeable (primary).  Primary batteries are supplied fully charged and cannot be reused.  Rechargeable batteries on the other hand can be recharged many times before they need replacing.  Therefore, rechargeable batteries have a lower total cost of ownership and environmental impact than non-rechargeable batteries.

Batteries are classified by the different chemicals used to make-up the battery.  The most common types of batteries are made from lithium and are referred to as lithium-ion batteries.  Lithium batteries, which are most popular in electric cars, are light weight and have low toxicity.  Another chemical element used to make batteries is cobalt. Cobalt is non-toxic and is used in making rechargeable lithium batteries.  Cadmium and nickel are usually combined to make rechargeable batteries for cellular phones, power tools and electronic devices.  Cadmium is toxic to animals and has been a cause of concern in the environment.  Niobium oxide is being explored for use in batteries as it has enormous potential in storing and delivering energy.

New technological developments in the battery industry are believed to be the solution to network stability issues and at the same time, provide us with backup energy for extended periods of time.  As a result, it is now estimated that the global demand for rechargeable batteries will double by 2025.  The increasing demand for batteries has led to an increase in demand in the metals used to produce batteries.  Naturally, the increase in the demand for these metals has led to an increase in the prices of the metals, with the price of cobalt surging approximately 135% this year.  The surge in these prices has led to an increased interest from investors for companies producing these metals in the mining industry.  Offers are being made all over the industry for companies producing metals such as lithium, niobium and cobalt.  Australian based Cradle Resources Limited recently received a cash offer to acquire all of its issued shares from Trevon Investments, a joint venture partner in the Panda Hill niobium project.  In another example, Lithium X, a Canadian lithium resource explorer and developer, has offered its common shares in order to raise funds to continue the development of its Sal de los Angeles project which is situated in the “Lithium Triangle” in the Salta Province of Argentina.

Although the increased demand in batteries has positively stimulated an interest in the associated industries, we need to take cognisance of the fact that an increase in the production of batteries will have adverse environmental implications.  The greatest environmental concern being the impact that the batteries have at the end of their lives.  Batteries can contain metals that may be harmful to the environment if those metals are not properly disposed of.  Chemicals such as nickel and cadmium are extremely toxic and can cause damage to humans and the environment. Cadmium can cause damage to soil micro-organisms and affect the breakdown of organic matter. It can also bio-accumulate (be absorbed) in fish, which reduces their numbers and makes them unfit for human consumption.  It is thus important that the potential harmful environmental effects of batteries are addressed to ensure that such harmful effects are reduced or even eliminated.

In South Africa the process of addressing the environmental implications has been initiated.  Part 7 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act, No. 59 of 2008 (“Act“) provides for the development of Industry Waste Management Plans which facilitate the principle of extended producer responsibility (“EPR“).  In an EPR scheme, producers take responsibility for the waste generated from their products post-consumer phase.  In line with the Act, in August 2016, the Minister of Environmental Affairs published the National Pricing Strategy for Waste Management in terms of section 13A (“Pricing Strategy“).  The Pricing Strategy provides that the Department of Environmental Affairs intends to implement EPR schemes in South Africa.  Batteries have been identified as one of the products to which the EPR schemes will possibly apply as it has toxic constituents that may become a problem at the end of life.  Even though producers of batteries, such as First National Battery, Dixon Batteries and Battery Centre have undertaken voluntary programmes to recycle batteries, the EPR schemes will place a mandatory obligation on all battery producers.  Annexure A of the Pricing Strategy provides an action plan which details how the Pricing Strategy will be implemented.  The action plan lists the tasks required for the implementation of the EPR schemes and shows that a number of these tasks were ongoing as of August 2016.

It is clear that battery industry in South Africa is aware of the adverse environmental implications that batteries have at the end of their useful life.  Major producers in the battery industry have already committed to recycling programmes for the batteries they produce. The government is also in the process of developing EPR schemes in order to shift the responsibility for waste management away from government to industry, obliging producers and importers to internalise waste management costs in their product prices and ensuring the handling of their products post end-of-life.  Even though these positive measures have been introduced to address the environmental implications of batteries, it remains to be seen whether the proposed measures will be implemented timeously and whether the measures will be sufficient to address the surging increase in the production of batteries.

By Mongezi Dladla (Trainee Attorney) and settled by Garyn Rapson (Partner) of Webber Wentzel



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