Button battery safety regulations : Are they working?

Button batteries compliance

More than 100 products have been recalled in Australia for breaches of the mandatory safety standards on button batteries!  Next week marks two years since the standards were mandated. Yet there have still been more than 40 products recalled so far in 2024. Clearly not enough is being done to ensure compliance – by importers, by retailers and by regulators.

Without question, the mandatory standards have made a real difference. The standards are complex and, especially as Australia was the first to mandate, there have been some teething problems. But I wonder, for this International Button Battery Awareness Day on 12 June, what can be done to address so much non-compliance two years down the track.

The ubiquity of button batteries

While many responsible suppliers have switched to using alkaline batteries, button batteries continue to be used in an ever-growing list of consumer items. These are often cheap items where limited attention is paid to compliance. The range of products involved is broad – from numerous toy variants, to remote controls for fans, cars, etc, to children’s apparel. This makes it more challenging to educate and alert suppliers on the need to ensure compliance.

Constant messaging is needed to make sure all importers and retailers understand the need to comply.

Enforcement and publicity – for awareness and deterrence

I am surprised to see that to date there appears to have only been a small number of enforcement actions taken by the ACCC. The ones on the website are for Dusk, The Reject Shop, Repco and Tesla – all big names. If action has been taken against the many smaller businesses that have recalled, it is hard to find on the ACCC website.

A quick search of several state consumer agencies did not present any details of button battery enforcement actions. Only WA stated in June 2023 that 19 infringement notices had been handed to non-compliant traders. But even these did not appear in a search of their website infringement notice announcements.

Although the recalls listings don’t always specify the nature of a breach, we can assume that some recalls were for substantial and careless non-compliance. These cases should be the subject of enforcement action as well as the big name businesses that have been singled out so far.

Importantly, any enforcement action – whether big or small – must be publicised by the regulators. Definitely in a media release, but also on all social media outlets.

The deterrent effect of a penalty will only work for the one business unless the action is publicised far and wide for all suppliers.

Online retail platforms

Several leading retail platforms have signed the ACCC’s Online safety pledge, which means they actively educate their suppliers and may block the sale of non-compliant products. This is a great way for the regulators to exert influence over what enters the local market.

However, there are many other online retail platforms that are yet to make the pledge and can operate with little to no safety and compliance effort. Regulatory agencies have limited options to control such sales.

Action at point of entry

While some products are sold online direct to consumers from overseas, many products subject to the mandatory standards are imported for sale in retail shops (including many that appear on the recalls list).

There is an opportunity to prevent non-compliant stock being brought into Australia.

A requirement by Australian Border Force to provide a compliance declaration before stock can enter the country would, at the very least, ensure awareness by importers. It could also prevent much non-compliant product being imported altogether. Such a requirement is an effective way of reaching the many small businesses that fall outside regular communication channels, such as  associations.

Not all consumer product standards need such measures, but an intransigent, high priority safety regulation like button batteries is one that warrants a more lateral approach. If the ACCC has not already approached Border Force for such a measure, I would like to see it do so as a priority.

Button batteries border check