The U.S. Postal Service has banned shipment of lithium batteries, commonly found in laptops, mobile phones, cameras and other items. (Johanna Geron / AFP via Getty Images)
A new rule issued by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) could cause logistical hurdles, as well as financial complications, for companies seeking to ship electronic items to and from APO, FPO, DPO and other international addresses.
The rule bans shipment of lithium batteries, commonly found in mobile phones, laptops, watches, cameras and other items. The ban, which took effect May 16, responds to new standards developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU). It applies regardless of quantity, size or watt hours, and regardless of whether the batteries are packed in the devices they’re meant to power.
Lithium batteries have raised safety concerns in recent years because of their potential to overheat. The ban appears to be tied to changes approved in February by the ICAO’s dangerous goods panel.
The USPS anticipates that as of Jan. 1, customers will be able to mail specific quantities of lithium batteries to and from overseas locations if they are properly installed in their devices, based on revised rules issued by the panel.
For vendors who supply such items to the military and other overseas users, the first line of response may be to switch their business to competing shippers such as FedEx and UPS. But that could drive up cost and may require a drastic shift in how these companies do their shipping.
“It may sound like a small change, but it is really very large. If you have all your forms already set up, all your online systems, those things tie together. So switching could be a real headache,” said Lynn Sutton, managing principal at Chicago-based Kairos Consulting Worldwide, a consulting firm specializing in streamlining government processes and procedures.
Because shippers use different equipment and processes, “you would have to reconfigure all your documents, all your bar codes, if you were going to change. There are any number of little changes that add up to a real [disruption] for whoever is having to figure it all out,” Sutton said.
Leaving USPS for another shipper also would spur financial complications. Vendors must either to negotiate favorable rates, or else pass along possible price increases to their customers in the Defense Department or other government agencies.
Some vendors are already making contingency plans.
At international online retailer Comfort House, for instance, battery-driven devices shipped overseas may include heated gloves and jackets, handheld wind meters, solar lighting and blood pressure monitors. With battery shipments on hold, the company is looking for new ways to keep its products available overseas, said President Jeffrey Gornstein.
“For now, we’ll be working with APO clients to determine if they have access to the proper batteries on base for the gear they are ordering. If so, we will be able to accept the order, but will remove the battery from the merchandise before shipment,” Gornstein said.
Even if retailers can rethink their distribution plans, the ban will no doubt have an impact on consumers. It means that for now, patrons of the military exchanges’ online and mail-order catalogs won’t be able to order products containing lithium batteries bound for international destinations, said Judd Anstey, spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which manages the catalogs and online store for all the services.
“The Exchange understands the necessity of these items and remains committed to identifying transportation solutions,” he said.
In 2011, the online store sold $9 million worth of products containing lithium batteries through www.shopmyexchange.com.
Brick-and-mortar exchanges overseas don’t use USPS or the Military Postal Service Agency to transport products, so the ban will not affect shipments of products with lithium batteries to those stores.
Despite the fact that the ICAO raised concerns over lithium batteries in February, George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said the issue goes back to 2007, when the USPS issued rules authorizing lithium batteries to be shipped to overseas addresses, including APO, FPO and DPO.
“That was actually inconsistent with UPU conventions and ICAO technical instructions,” he said.
Last year and again this year, the UPU asked the ICAO to amend the rules to allow lithium batteries to be shipped by mail under certain restrictions. Those changes were approved, but with an effective date of next January.
Meanwhile, the USPS became concerned about its own looser rules that it had followed since 2007 and decided to immediately get in line with the ICAO revised technical policy that bans such items until January, Kerchner said.
That concern may have been spurred, at least in part, by a law signed by President Barack Obama in February requiring the U.S. Transportation Department to line up its regulations on lithium batteries with ICAO policy.
In announcing the rule, USPS also said that it would be rescinded on Jan. 1, at which time customers will be able to mail specific quantities of lithium batteries to and from overseas locations if they are properly installed in their devices.
The vendor community likely will be using the intervening seven months to try to exert some influence over whatever the next set of rules may encompass.
“I would imagine you are going to have several folks step up to have some input into what that Jan. 1 rollback is going to look like, so that their specific needs are considered,” Sutton said. “At least that will be true among the larger players.”
While the ban may inconvenience vendors and drive up costs for government buyers, the big losers here may be those who made the rule in the first place.
“It will do more damage to the U.S. Postal Service, because they already have stiff competition and now they are pushing themselves out of a really large market,” Sutton said. “Even temporarily, that is really dangerous.”