A damning report about battery recycling in Africa lays waste to the lead-acid industry’s claims that regulations are making it environmentally better and safer than lithium-ion.
The findings, from The Lead Recycling Africa Project, have found lead poisoning is severely under-reported in sub-Saharan Africa, where 800,000 tonnes (8% of annual world production) is made available each year for recycling.
The Lead Recycling Africa Project said collection and recycling practices in all surveyed countries lacked even basic precaution measures to prevent the emissions of lead and battery acid into the workspace and the environment.
Issues arise from inadequate monitoring of battery repair shops, small-scale collectors and the manual breaking of more than 1.2 million tonnes of used lead-acid batteries in Africa each year.
The International Lead Association’s managing director, Andy Bush, said: “It is not correct to infer that there is an ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude to these problems of the developing world.
“When lead batteries are recycled by facilities that observe the proper risk management measures there is little risk of lead exposure to the general public as lead is handled in a “closed loop”.
Although most secondary lead smelters undergo an environmental impact assessment before operating, they are usually ‘far from’ meeting the established standard-levels of industrialised countries, claims the report.
It continues that industrial smelters commonly export secondary lead bars, which do not meet a standardised level of purity, to lead refineries, mostly in Asia and Europe, where lead-acid batteries are produced.
The report said: “Although various countries and recycling plant-operators have proven that these batteries can be recycled without causing significant damage to human health and the environment, management of end-of-life batteries in developing countries and emerging economies is often inadequate and presents a severe health risk to workers and neighbouring communities.”
The Lead Recycling Africa Project is calling on governments, regulatory bodies and the industry to help clean up the problem.
It wants stringent standards and requirements introduced, collection and take-back schemes introduced, and international organisations such as UNEP and WHO to support the transfer of know-how and technologies to developing and emerging economies.
Andy Bush’s full answers to BBB’s questions about lead polution and regulations across the world.
BBB: It looks from a cynical viewpoint that while a lot is being done about lead pollution in western countries, the problem is simply being diverted to other countries where a ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude is taken?
Bush: It is not correct to infer that there is an ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude to these problems of the developing world. The International Lead Association has for many years run an improvement programme on risk management and responsible care for the recycling industry in countries such as China, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and Senegal, in partnership with National governments and organisations such as the Basel Secretariat, the United Nations Environment Programme and Pure Earth (formerly Blacksmith Institute) with very positive results for local communities.
As well as transferring know-how and knowledge to emerging economies our programme also has a goal to support national authorities to design and implement policies that encourage responsible recycling by facilities adopting environmentally sound management whilst discouraging informal, backyard recycling.
BBB: With all the ‘lead is safe’ rhetoric coming from first world countries, is there a lack of regulation in third world/emerging economies?
Bush: Unfortunately there is a lack of proper standards, regulation and know-how in some developing countries and informal recycling of lead batteries by cottage industries is acknowledged as a challenge.
Examples of the work we have done in this area include developing a Risk Reduction Toolbox offering practical guidance on environmentally sound management of used lead batteries and a series of Guidance Notes designed to be easily understood by workers and managers in all areas of lead production, manufacturing and recycling wherever its location.
BBB: Are third world/emerging countries being exploited just so the lead industry can slap a ‘99% recycling’ label on its batteries and PR literature?
Bush: Through ILA the lead recycling industry in the developed world takes its role as a promoter of responsible care seriously and will continue to work with others to ensure that the great success story of closed loop recycling is replicated in other regions.
The high recycling rates of used lead batteries has been one of the success stories of the lead industry in recent years – 99% in Europe and North America-and this does support the claim that lead based batteries can be a sustainable and environmentally responsible chemistry.