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How Might Gaming Prevent Toxic Battery Waste?

How can the UK divert 600m batteries used each year from landfill and prevent toxic leaching into soil and waterways through runoff by increasing recycling rates? Supported by SustainRCA, Royal College of Art Master’s design students have been working with waste management and resource specialist ecosurety to tackle a persistent issue: getting people to recycle their used batteries.

Batteries contain toxic substances that end up in landfill, and leach into soil and waterways through runoff. Almost 90 per cent of mercury and 50 per cent of cadmium found in the Municipal Solid Waste stream comes from dry cell batteries, though at present, just 3 per cent is recovered or recycled.

Under the guidance of Royal College of Art research unit SustainRCA, design students came up with a number of concepts and prototypes to help people to remember to recycle and to encourage them to collect their used batteries. One concept, Battery Arcade, a gaming-led scheme, incentivises the public to bring used batteries back to locations like supermarkets. Each battery acts as a credit for in-store, arcade-style games, activated by placing the used battery in the slot. The concept brings fun into the act of recycling, helps entertain children while parents are shopping, and helps build awareness of the relationship between electronic gaming, toys, battery waste and energy required.

A second project looked to convenience and improved visual labelling, making it easier to identify and separate the four main battery types through a colour-coded system. A small bag embedded in every battery-pack provides more convenient collection of dead batteries from kerbside or via in-store recycling. Both bag and labelling serve as a physical reminder to recycle.

The UK urgently needs to recycle more batteries to meet legally binding EU targets. The collection of heavy lead acid batteries such as those found in cars has become widespread due to legislation but the challenge now is to extend this practice to smaller batteries, which are more easily thrown away.

As part of this drive to increase the recovery rates of small batteries and Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment Recycling (WEEE), the UK’s existing collection infrastructure will need to dramatically change to both encourage and enable people to recycle. The use of design-thinking – drawing on a creative toolkit including visualisation, mapping and prototyping – explores ways to meet this goal.

Clare Brass, head of SustainRCA said: ‘Getting people to recycle batteries is a huge challenge that’s often not fun. Their size often means they are easily thrown in the usual household bin, or simply forgotten about. Designing an experience like gaming around battery recycling can inject fun into something seen as dull, or it can help bring it to the fore of people’s thinking  so that they actually remember to recycle.’

According to ecosurety chair Steve Clark, the recycling industry needs to focus more on the design-and-systems phase of the product cycle to achieve a fundamental shift in the use of resources.

‘Batteries recycling is a live issue for the UK,’ said ecosurety chair, Clark. ‘In setting this project we were genuinely interested to hear from the RCA’s postgraduate sustainable-design community, and both project teams have delivered some fascinating plans. Developing a viable alternative to the current systems will always be a big challenge, because there is so much to consider. But it has been useful and thought-provoking to get this input at a time when it’s becoming clear that batteries recycling needs to be rethought here in the UK.’

Clark added: ‘When it comes to achieving a step-change in sustainability, the UK improving its recycling rates is only a small part of a bigger picture. This particular systems-thinking project happens to be focused on improved recycling, but underlying that it is also about driving more fundamental change. It’s important to ecosurety to have relationships with organisations like SustainRCA and other plugged-in programmes because they are engaged with rethinking and challenging our current systems. That’s where the systemic transformation we need will come from and where ecosurety is boosting its activity.’

Project teams presented their proposals to ecosurety chair Steve Clark and Marcus Gover, director of sustainable products and service systems at WRAP.