Europe Polarized on NiCad Rechargable Battery Ban

STRASBOURG, France, April 21, 2004 (ENS) - Once considered environmentally friendly replacements for disposable batteries, nickel-cadmium (NiCad) rechargeable batteries could soon be banned across Europe because they pose an unacceptable environmental risk.

The European Parliament confirmed on Tuesday that it wants an EU ban on cadmium in batteries, effectively demanding an end to NiCad batteries, which leach toxic cadmium, a known carcinogen, into the environment when they become waste.

Green Party representative Dr. Caroline Lucas, a member of the European Parliament's Environment Committee from South-East England, said, "Ni-Cad batteries are hazardous and have been linked to cancers."

The European Commission, the EU executive branch, reiterated its opposition to the move. A majority of EU member states are thought to be against restrictions on NiCads. Industry, too, vowed to continue fighting against restrictions.


Voting on the draft EU batteries law, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) followed their Environment Committee and rejected European Commission plans to deal with NiCads through higher collection targets.

MEPs allowed for some exemptions from a general ban, but in one important area Parliament went even further than the committee by rejecting an exemption for NiCads in power tools. Battery powered tools are considered safer because they eliminate the possibility of tripping over power cords on job sites.

"This is a wrong decision," said an angry Brian Cooke of the European Power Tools Association. "Emotion has triumphed over logic and facts."

The Commission quickly insisted that it continues to oppose a ban. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom supports the introduction of a closed loop system for lead and nickel-cadmium batteries, and she said better collection would achieve the same environmental effect as a ban on rechargables at a lower cost.


Cellphones like this take rechargables. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The closed loop system would mean that all batteries would be collected and recycled, and their metals reintroduced in the economic cycle. In this way, no lead or cadmium would leak into the environment.

Wallstrom applauded the priority given by Parliament to making producers contribute to the collection of all battery types.

But one new amendment to the batteries law could be interpreted to absolve producers of the responsibility to pay the costs of waste battery treatment.

In most other details the full Parliament backed the Environment Committee's generally tough line on the new batteries law. Collection targets remain binding and have been increased. Recycling targets are unchanged.

"We're extremely disappointed; the amendments are not well thought through at all," a spokesperson for the European portable batteries association said.

Before the vote, the association upset some MEPs by issuing a spoof comic strip forecasting disastrous consequences if some changes were not reversed.

The vote had not allayed its concerns, the association spokesperson said.


Any rechargable batteries in this mess? (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth congratulated the MEPs on standing firm despite the industry's "excessive and misleading claims."

Representing 143 environmental NGOs in 31 countries, John Hontelez, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau, said, "The Water Framework Directive lists cadmium and its compounds as one out of 10 priority hazardous substances for which discharges, emissions and losses have to be ceased within 20 years.

"Viable alternatives, also for most power tools, are already available but are less competitive on the market due to the cheaper cadmium option. Under the substitution principle nickel-cadmium batteries can and must be phased out," Hontelez said.

And the Council of European Municipalities and Regions called the support for a NiCad ban "a victory" for local authorities.

Dr. Lucas added, "I am glad that a majority of MEPs avoided falling victim to a staggering campaign of misinformation from the industrial lobby, which had suggested that alarm clocks, electrical toothbrushes and cordless phones, for example, would not work anymore if the Parliament restricted the use of lead and cadmium, a claim which is simply untrue."


Environment Committee Chair Caroline Jackson (Photo credit unknown)
There is a chance that Parliament could revisit its position on the issue after the June parliamentary elections, in part because leading MEPs, including Environment Committee Chair Caroline Jackson, have proposed re-running a first reading to enable full scrutiny of the legislation by MEPs from the 10 new member states that will join the EU on May 1.

After Tuesday's vote in the European Parliament, the Commission will introduce a modified proposal, accepting some of the amendments and rejecting others. The Council of Ministers will then formulate its opinion on the proposed law in a common position. The co-decision procedure will end when the European Parliament and the Council reach agreement and formally adopt the law.

After publication in the Official Journal and its entry into force, member states will have 18 months to transpose the obligations of this law into national legislation.

{ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report.}