Informal recyclers in India processed more than a million tonnes of scrap lead-acid batteries as they continue to flout environmental rules governing the disposal of used batteries, an India-based think tank has reported.
Environmental research organisation Toxics Link reported that 90% of the 12lakh (1.2 million) tonnes of batteries that entered the country’s recycling industry during 2017-18 were processed in informal recycling units.
The organisation called for existing waste battery management regulations to be strengthened and implementation made stricter with heavy penalties for violations of rules in its report Leaded Batteries: Mapping the Toxic Trail.
The country’s informal lead-acid battery recycling industry is being driven by economics with insufficient focus on ensuring operations are meeting obligations to protect health and the environment, Dr Steve Binks, regulatory affairs director at the International Lead Association, told BEST Battery Briefing.
Informal traders and recyclers receive used lead-acid batteries from a variety of sources including dealers— especially in smaller towns and villages— and workshops, claim the organisation. Formal recyclers, in contrast, mainly receive their waste from dealers, battery manufacturing companies and bulk consumers.
However, the report noted that many of the formal recycling companies appeared to carry out operations that were ‘not very different from the informal sector’.
“Hence it does seem that these units are not properly monitored by the regulatory agencies,” said the report.
“Overall, the awareness levels seemed low among consumers, who were unaware about the hazards related to lead-acid batteries as well as mostly oblivious of the Battery Rules which have been in force for many years.
“The other players in the value chain, namely, dealers, workshops, traders were aware of the rules and the need to treat the used LABs in a safe manner but most of them chose economic gains over environmental or health concerns.
“The on-ground situation clearly points towards the failure of the rules and apathy towards treating hazardous materials.”
Binks, told BBB the report accurately highlighted the current situation in India where very active informal, and below-standard licensed, lead recyclers co-exist with operations such as Gravita who were operating under environmentally sound conditions.
He said: “This is frustrating as India does have Battery Management and Handling Rules (BMHR) that were amended in 2010 that aimed to achieve 90% recycling rates.
“Regrettably these rules don’t provide sufficient encouragement to ensure appropriate environmental and occupational health standards are employed by recyclers.”
In both small and large-scale units, dismantlers in India reportedly break open the batteries using hammers or similar heavy tools, before the plastic casing, separators and lead grids are separated.
Recyclers and small-scale scrap collectors then pour hydrochloric acid electrolyte out on land or in drain, said the report, which can make its way into the groundwater table, rivers and the sewage system.
Earlier this year, Pure Earth told the ILA’s Pb2019 conference they had found the number of batteries being recycled informally in India was more than 50%. Although the non-profit indicated figures could be much bleaker.
ILA pledge to transform Pb industry legacy
The ILA has for many years been active in India, working with NGOs such as Pure Earth, to try to address these problems both at the government level and by providing advice and support to local regulators to improve standards.
For example, it has recently been in the Bihar Province with Pure Earth to make representation to the government to change the BMHR to promote the environmentally sound management of used lead batteries and eliminate informal recycling.
The association is also running, for the first time, an employee lead exposure management workshop at next week’s International Secondary Lead Conference with a focus on targeting Asian battery manufacturers and recyclers with information on good practice.
Next month ILA will make a significant announcement that will demonstrate that the lead battery value chain in Europe and North America is committed to being part of the solution to problems in low and medium income countries.
This will highlight some specific actions that it intends to take to ensure that manufacturing and recycling of lead batteries worldwide meet standards that protect human health and the environment.