Lead-acid batteries are used on a mass-scale in all parts of the world for energy storage. Lead-acid batteries contain sulphuric acid and large amounts of lead. The acid is extremely corrosive and is also a good carrier for soluble lead and lead particulate. Lead is a highly toxic metal that produces a range of adverse health impacts particularly among young children.
Exposure to excessive levels of lead can cause damage to brain and kidney, impair hearing; and lead to numerous other associated problems. On average, each automobile manufactured contains approximately 12 kilograms of lead. Around 96% lead is used in the common lead-acid battery, while the remaining 4% in other applications including wheel balance weights, protective coatings and vibration dampers.
Recycling of lead-acid batteries is a profitable business, albeit dangerous, in developing countries. Many developing countries buy used lead-acid batteries (also known as ULABs) from industrialized countries (and Middle East) in bulk in order to extract lead. ULAB recycling occurs in almost every city in the developing world where ULAB recycling and smelting operations are often located in densely populated urban areas with hardly any pollution control and safety measures for workers.
Usually ULAB recycling operations release lead-contaminated waste into the environment and natural ecosystems. Infact, Blacksmith Institute estimates that over 12 million people are affected by lead contamination from processing of used lead acid batteries in the developing world, with South America, South Asia and Africa being the most affected regions.
The problems associated with recycling of ULABs are well-documented and recognized by the industry and the Basel Convention Secretariat. As much of the informal ULAB recycling is small-scale and difficult to regulate or control, progress is possible only through cleanup, outreach, policy, and education.
For example, Blacksmith’s Lead Poisoning and Car Batteries Project is currently active in eight countries, including Senegal, the Dominican Republic, India, and the Philippines. The Project aims to end widespread lead poisoning from the improper recycling of ULABs, and consists of several different strategies and programs, with the most important priority being the health of children in the surrounding communities.
There is no effective means of tracking shipments of used lead-acid batteries from foreign exporters to recycling plants in developing world which makes it difficult to trace ULABs going to unauthorized or inadequate facilities.
The Way Forward
An effective method to reduce the hazards posed by trans-boundary movements of ULABs is to encourage companies that generate used lead batteries to voluntarily stop exporting lead batteries to developing countries. These types of voluntary restrictions on transboundary shipments can help pressure companies involved in recycling lead batteries in developing to improve their environmental performance. It may also help encourage policy makers to close the gaps in both regulations and enforcement capacity.
Another interesting way is to encourage regeneration of lead-acid batteries which can prolong its life significantly. The advantage of battery regeneration over regular recycling is the reduced carbon footprint incurred by mitigating the collecting, packing, shipping and smelting of millions of tonnes of batteries and their cases. Most importantly, it takes about 25kWh of energy to remake a 15Kg, 12V 70Ah battery and just 2.1KWh to regenerate it electronically.