A Green Alternative to Battery Recycling
Reviving Dead or Discarded Car Batteries
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Why should we ReUse car batteries, when they are already being recycled? Here's an opinion / allegation by Greenpeace below, titled, "The Myth of Automobile Battery Recycling":
The Myth of Automobile Battery Recycling
by Madeleine Cobbing and Simon Divecha
A global Greenpeace investigation of automobile lead-acid battery collection programs has revealed a massive flow of these extremely toxic wastes from heavily industrialized countries -- particularly Australia, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. -- to many Third World countries, particularly in Asia.
The main factors causing the lead battery waste trade are typical to all waste trade schemes: in industrial countries, the environmental and occupational health regulatory cost of operating lead battery recycling facilities is ever-increasing, and the prices offered for secondary lead are low. It is simply not profitable to operate secondary lead smelters in many industrial countries. Battery brokers are finding more profitable markets in places where workers are paid little, and environmental and workplace regulations are weak and/or unenforced.
The end result of this free trade in toxic waste: thousands of workers and children suffering from lead blood poisoning, rivers and air loaded with lead emissions, and big profits for the lead battery brokers and manufacturers.
The Inherent Dangers of Lead Recycling
Lead is a basic element and can not be destroyed. For thousands of years, people have extracted lead from ores for use in a variety of products. Now, more than half of the lead extracted by humans is used is in batteries. Other major uses include semi-finished sheetmetal and pipes, alloys, cable sheathing, additives in gasoline and other compounds, and ammunition.
Lead and people do not belong together, and human society should avoid its use at all costs. For example, historians have tied the decline of the Roman Empire partially to declining intelligence caused by the use of lead in drinking vases and other utensils.
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead. Even relatively small amounts of lead can cause permanent lowering of intelligence in children, potentially resulting in reading disorders, psychological disturbances, and mental retardation. Other effects of lead on children include kidney disease, and gouty arthritis.
The Decline of Lead Battery Recycling in Industrial Countries
Lead batteries and lead battery smelters have been transferring out of industrial countries in recent years, as environmental regulations have tightened and domestic lead prices have dropped. In the U.K., for example, the secondary lead industry faces a "critical situation," according to a recent issue of the Metal Bulletin. The U.K.'s Lead Development Association warned that "the current low lead price, combined with increasing associated environmental costs ... has made it less profitable" to operate secondary lead smelters. Industry officials in the U.K. are predicting that most lead smelters there will close within the next four years.
The secondary lead industry has already shifted out of North America en masse. According to the Journal of Metals, by 1987, "the inability to economically install emission controls and purchase liability insurance forced closure of over half of the secondary lead smelters in North America." The U.S. Bureau of Mines reported that "waste disposal is becoming a very significant expense and is often a difficult task to perform," and linked the problems to the closures.
The Bureau of Mines report added: "Foreign smelters can afford to bid a higher price for scrap because their capital, labor and environmental costs are lower than U.S. producers."
The surviving lead battery smelters in North America are facing fates similar to those of the U.K. smelters. According to one metals journal, secondary lead "prices continued to drop in 1992 and in 1993 because of low demand and ever-bulging inventories."
According to the American Metal Market, "Scrap trade sources have said the growing importance of poorer countries as buyers in the international battery scrap market is a reflection of the difficulty some U.S. operators have had in assuring that they can comply with increasingly strict environmental regulations."
Lead Industry's Recycling Greenwash
Without a global dumping ground, the lead-acid battery manufacturing industry would likely be forced to become clean, by eliminating the use of lead in batteries. The demise of lead smelting companies in industrial countries, after all, reflects industrial societies' desire to be contaminated by lead no more. Unfortunately, the flourishing international trade in lead-acid battery wastes is providing battery manufacturers with cheap and easy escape valves for their toxic wastes.
Just as the primary plastics industry promoted plastics "recycling" when citizens in industrial countries began fighting for plastics packaging bans, the lead-acid battery industry is using the cloak of "recycling" to hide the impact of its products' wastes, and to thus reduce the threat to its 'status quo' use of toxics in production processes.
On May 7, 1991, Battery Council International (BCI), a trade association representing the international lead battery industry, distributed a press releases proclaiming: "Consumers Need to Be Jump Started on the Importance of Recycling Lead Batteries." This press release opens with classic words of 'greenwash':
"Recyclable lead batteries work hard behind the scenes keeping heart surgeons operating when a storm knocks out electricity, starting cars on sub-zero winter mornings, and providing power for important U.S. military missions, including igniting the launch of Patriot Missiles in the recent Persian Gulf War. ... To protect our environment and to make the best use of this essential source of power, consumers need to recycle all lead batteries."
The battery industry's campaign to make legislators and consumers believe in the magic of lead battery recycling has been remarkably successful, despite the continual decline of the lead recycling industry in industrial countries. Model laws crafted by BCI and adopted in many parts of the U.S., for example, require retailers to accept used car batteries when consumers purchase new ones. Several U.S. states require a cash deposit on new battery purchases, which is refunded to the consumer after they return the used battery to the retailer.
When consumers pay cash recycling deposits, and return their used automobile lead-acid batteries to their retailers, they often suppose that the promised "recycling" means that the world's environment will benefit. Greenpeace and other investigations of the international lead-acid battery waste trade, however, reveal that this battery "recycling" can exact a terrible toll from workers, children and the environment in the Third World.
- Major Lead Waste Exporting Countries:
- Australia -- In 1992, Australia exported over 17 million kilograms (17,000 tonnes) of lead battery scrap to Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.
- Japan -- According to a government source, Japan exports 30,000 tonnes of lead-acid auto batteries to Southeast Asia each year.
- U.K. -- In 1992, the U.K. exported 578 tonnes of lead waste, including lead battery waste, to Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, British Indian Ocean Territories, Bulgaria and South Korea. This rose to 3,124 tonnes in the first 9 months 1993; the major destinations were the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Brazil.
- U.S. -- In the first nine months of 1993, the U.S. exported 41,527 tons of lead scrap. More than 78% of these wastes went to Canada, which has relatively weak lead waste pollution control and liability regulations. Most of the remaining lead scrap exports were shipped to Brazil, South Korea, China and India. In 1990 and 1991, the U.S. exported 76,876 and 94,471 tons of lead scrap, respectively. Other major importing countries of U.S. lead scrap in the 1990s have included: Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand and the U.K. By comparison, the U.S. imported just 10,000 tonnes of lead scrap in 1990.
Note: The figures for "lead scrap waste" exports do not differentiate between lead-acid battery waste and many other kinds of lead waste, such as slags and ashes from lead smelters and lead cable scrap. Customs and waste export regulations in most industrial countries do not regulate these waste streams separately. Many industrialized countries do not regulate the export of these wastes at all. (Sources: Australia - Australian Bureau of Statistics, Commodity Export Statistics, 1992, compiled by Greenpeace Australia; U.K. - U.K. Customs & Excise, Trade Statistics, 1992-93, compiled by Greenpeace U.K.; Port Import Export Research Service, Trade Statistics 1990 - 1993, compiled by Greenpeace U.S. Also, numerous issues of American Metal Market; Battery and EV Technology, July 1991.)
The Third World Reality of Lead-Acid Battery Recycling
In 1993, Greenpeace researchers followed the toxic battery waste trade to numerous lead-acid battery recycling facilities in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. This research followed similar investigations conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Taiwan in 1990, and other researchers in Brazil and Mexico in recent years.
Pieced together, these investigations reveal that industrial countries are not shipping their batteries to environmentally sound recycling operations. In fact, U.S., U.K. and Australian automobile batteries are being burned in extremely dangerous and dirty Third World factories. These secondary lead smelters are discharging acid into waterways, dumping residual wastes outside property gates, and poisoning workers, villagers and their families.
The investigations reveal the "double standards" inherent in all types of toxic waste trade. These double standards are reflected in all of the lead waste recycling processes that can potentially harm people and the environment, including transportation, workplace and ambient air emissions, storage and handling of scrap batteries, and slag disposal.
For example, people working in lead recycling facilities in the U.S. are required to wear full-body protective gear to shield themselves from hazardous fumes and burning liquids. In one facility in the Philippines, Greenpeace witnessed factory workers pulling batteries apart with their bare hands. In Indonesia, villagers reported that lead ash from the factory falls in their food at night.
Here are some brief summaries of the researchers' findings, country by country:
Beginning in 1987, scores of workers at two lead battery importing and recycling plants in Brazil quit or were fired from their jobs after their health had failed. The people had worked at Tonolli and FAE S.A., two lead battery smelters located in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. City public health officials announced in 1991 that the lead recycling companies were responsible for poisoning the workers with lead.
According to Dr. Ezio Zaghetto, a Sao Jose dos Campos public health official, "Our tests [of the worker's blood and urine] showed that working at Tonolli and FAE causes chronic lead intoxication." 
According to CETESB (the State of Sao Paolo Environmental Protection Agency), neighbors of Tonolli believe that the plant frequently releases black dusts, which settle on nearby farmland, and may have killed cattle in October 1988. CETESB believes that the emissions of lead and cadmium may also be causing highly elevated levels of lead in the blood of children living nearby.  CETESB fined FAE in 1988 for numerous violations of occupational health and environmental regulations, including problems with the smelter itself.  Despite these findings, Tonolli and FAE are still operating and are two of Brazil's largest lead battery waste importers.
Worker health & safety has also been a problem at Microlite, the largest of the battery smelters in Brazil and part of Saturnia Batteries Enterprise. High levels of lead were found in the blood of workers and in the air . Microlite imports battery waste from the U.K. and the U.S.
Indonesia is one of the few countries in Asia which has banned some waste imports. Although Indonesian customs authorities temporarily impounded over 100 container loads of lead-acid battery waste in various ports, new containers are still being imported into the country.
Environment and health officials have also been fighting to control battery processors since mid-1991. Indonesia's federal Environment Ministry (BAPEDAL) closed one lead-acid battery recycling facility in Surabaya in May 1991, and another in Bekasi in September 1992. In December 1992, the regional government in Cirebon ordered the closure of ten lead acid battery recycling factories because of pollution and occupational health violations. 
Indonesia's efforts to prosecute individual lead-acid battery importers have failed to stem the foreign waste invasion. In the first five months of 1993, the U.K. shipped over 700 tonnes of lead acid batteries to Indonesia, compared to 200 tonnes shipped from the U.K. in 1992. Australia is the main source of the invasion; in 1992, it exported more than 11,000 tonnes of battery scrap to Indonesia.
Greenpeace visited IMLI, the largest battery waste importing plant in Indonesia, located south of Surabaya. When it began operation in the late 1980's, villagers believed it was a wood processing plant. Instead, IMLI burns 60,000 tonnes of lead acid batteries at the plant each year. Clouds of smoke and ash from the factory have been descending on the community since IMLI began operation, rendering nearby rice fields infertile. Local residents complain that ashes from the factory often fall in their wells and on their food. Many villagers say they are sick, that everyone has a cough, and half of them cough blood.
BAPEDAL sampled effluent from IMLI and determined it to be extremely acidic. Documents obtained by Greenpeace revealed lead levels in IMLI workers and local villagers between two and three times greater than the acceptable U.S. occupational health standards.
IMLI also dumps its waste slag -- a mixture of lead and plastic from the furnaces -- outside its factory gates. Villagers collect the slag, take it home, and smelt it in woks over open fires in their backyards. The lead spills onto the ground as it is poured off, while molten plastic floats to the top. The villagers then try to sell the extracted lead content of the slag, while exposing themselves even more to the foreign waste invasion. People throughout Java are practicing this crude method of recycling wastes from another country.
In December 1993, Morris Kirk, the operator of a Mexican lead battery recycling company called Alco Pacific, was sentenced to 16 months in a California state prison, and fined US$2.5 million for illegally transporting lead battery wastes from the U.S. to Mexico.  He had shipped the wastes across the border under the pretext of recycling. Mexican law allows hazardous waste imports for recycling but not for disposal.
Kirk's Alco Pacific smelter in Ojo de Agua, Mexico, imported hundreds of truckloads of automobile batteries between 1988 and 1991. It faced growing resistance from people living nearby. Alco Pacific's smelter closed in early 1991 and Kirk declared bankruptcy, leaving behind a massive pile of car battery wastes from the U.S.
The 15,500 tonne pile of waste batteries will be cleaned up by a corporate co-defendant in the case, RSR Industries of Dallas, Texas, which is one of the world's largest automobile battery recycling companies. RSR Industries allegedly supplied most of the batteries to Alco Pacific through its California-based subsidiary, Quemetco. 
Car batteries were not the only toxic lead wastes from the U.S. planned to be "recycled" at the ill-fated Alco Pacific smelter: According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records, the transnational corporation, DuPont, unsuccessfully tried to ship millions of pounds of lead slag from its New Jersey plant to Alco Pacific in 1990. 
A Greenpeace investigation of the plant in 1992 found that uncontrolled fires were burning in the lead battery waste pile. This investigation was documented in "Wasting the World," a Greenpeace Toxic Trade campaign video released during the December 1992 meeting of the Basel Convention. 
David Eng, a district attorney for Los Angeles County, confirmed that numerous fires have been burning in Alco Pacific's toxic battery pile since the smelter closed in 1991. Eng also reported that cows at a nearby dairy farm have died after drinking lead-contaminated water flowing from the smoldering battery dump, and residents of the surrounding towns are suffering from skin and respiratory diseases. 
Since Alco Pacific's closure, U.S. lead battery waste shipments to Mexico have virtually stopped, according to American Metal Market newspaper.
In the first 6 months of 1993, waste traders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. shipped over 16,000 tonnes of battery scrap to the Philippines.
These foreign wastes are violating a national law banning such toxic waste imports. The Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources ruled in 1991 that "the importation of waste batteries which are considered as hazardous materials is not allowed" under Republic Act No. 6959. 
The vast majority of the waste shipped to the Philippines in 1993 went to a lead smelter near Manila, Lead Smelters Inc., which recently changed its name to Philippines Recyclers Inc. (PRI). Despite emission controls devices on the plant, it is polluting the nearby river and surrounding rice fields. Local residents report that discharge from the plant into the river often runs black, and local residents suffer from burning eyes and sore throats.
Pollution from lead battery imports into the Philippines is not confined to the PRI vicinity. Battery wastes also find their way to small battery recyclers, like Parker Batteries, in the back streets of Manila. At Parker Batteries, workers wear no protective clothing, and gasp in unventilated rooms. Residents and workers around Inmarflex, a secondary lead smelter in Manila, suffer from severe breathing problems; some of them even cough up blood.
Greenpeace researchers visited Parker Batteries and found it almost impossible to breathe because of sulfuric acid fumes. Lead waste and sulfuric acid drains into open sewers in the surrounding slums, and slags from the lead smelter lie on the open ground next to the plant.
Workers at Parker Batteries exhibit signs of lead contamination with teeth blackened by years of inhaling lead. Official occupational health and safety studies have found that workers at both Parker Batteries and PRI have "significantly higher levels of lead" in their blood compared to workers from other industries using lead. 
The San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) first looked at the lead battery trade while producing the hour-long waste trade documentary, "Global Dumping Ground," and a companion book, both of which were released in 1990. Their investigative trail led to Taiwan, where CIR researchers found two factories importing lead-acid batteries from the U.S.: ACME and Thai Ping. 
These factories were already under investigation by the Taiwanese government for causing severe health and environmental problems, and eventually, the government of Taiwan ordered a ban on all lead-acid battery imports. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency has since replaced this ban with a new licensing procedure for lead waste importers. This procedure has dramatically limited, but not entirely stopped, lead scrap imports.  Export records from Australia indicate that Australian companies were still shipping lead-acid batteries to Taiwan, through May 1993. 
The investigations were triggered in 1987 when a sick ACME employee went to Dr. Jung-Der Wang complaining of faintness and weakness in his arms and legs. Dr. Wang, a Harvard-educated specialist in environment-related health problems, determined that the worker suffered from an extremely high level of lead in his blood -- twice the limit for U.S. standards. Dr. Wang surmised that the worker had been poisoned on the job.
With the help of the Taiwan government, Dr. Wang launched an investigation into the extent of contamination and poisoning amongst ACME workers. He found that 31 of the 64 ACME workers suffered from lead poisoning, and some of them had blood lead levels three times higher than U.S. occupational health limits.
The pollution from ACME's lead smelter did not stop at the factory gates. Dr. Wang examined 36 children at a nearby school and found that 22 of them had elevated levels of lead in their blood. In addition, a Taiwanese newspaper reported that ACME had dumped thousands of tonnes of waste in a open field near the factory, and that the waste was threatening the water supply of the surrounding community.
As the ACME investigation progressed, citizens living near an even larger lead smelter, Thai Ping, became concerned about local lead emissions. Protesters gathered at the Thai Ping factory and smashed windows.
Like the ACME factory, Thai Ping was poisoning its workers. In April 1990, Dr. Michael Rabinowitz conducted an investigation into the health of Thai Ping workers. He found that they had blood lead levels high enough to be at risk of developing kidney and nerve problems. He also examined school children near the Thai Ping smelter and found that the children's teeth had twice the lead level of children living in the capital city of Taipei.
Dr. Rabinowitz warned that the "children can be expected to have impaired intelligence, slower physical growth and some behavioral disorders -- trouble paying attention, hyperactivity."
In 1990, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) decided to halt all battery imports due to the extensive contamination.  "Don't import from the United States," said Taiwan EPA Director Eugene Chien. "It causes too many problems for us." 
In May 1986, the U.S. subsidiary of a Danish company, Bergsoe Metal Corp., went bankrupt, and closed its lead battery recycling plant in St. Helens, Oregon. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Bergsoe's facility poisoned air, groundwater, and soil beyond the plant's property with lead and arsenic. Bergsoe's U.S. subsidiary then tried to operate as a toxic waste battery broker, and unsuccessfully requested the governments of Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan to import lead battery wastes. 
Today, Bergsoe Metal Corp., operates a lead battery recycling plant in Suraburi, Thailand, which imports lead waste from industrialized countries such as Australia, Japan and the U.S. Australia shipped 166 tonnes of battery scrap to Thailand in 1992, and over 6,000 tonnes in the first nine months of 1993. 
In Suraburi, north of Bangkok, an ornate Buddhist archway leads to a temple. It also marks the entrance to Bergsoe's lead smelter for processing imported lead-acid batteries. This lead recycling plant breaks up the batteries and smelts them, along with their plastic casings.
Bergsoe's plant is emitting a toxic haze of chlorine, lead and other hazardous substances, sure to leave a legacy as disastrous as its former smelter in Oregon. Bergsoe dumps toxic slags behind their Suraburi factory, where the toxics leach into the ground. Greenpeace researchers took samples of Bergsoe's discharges and found high levels of lead.
Local residents complain that the plant emits white smoke, mostly at night, which makes their eyes burn, makes them nauseous, and gives them a strange taste in their mouths. According to Suchart Somkhunthod, a neighbor of the factory and an infrequent employee of Bergsoe when "huge containers come from overseas," the smoke emitted "smells bad and makes me feel nauseous."
Incredibly, Bergsoe enjoys a positive reputation with the Thai government, receiving an "outstanding factory" award from the Ministry of Industry in 1988. It is now trying to expand its Suraburi plant. 
 Michael Kepp, "Workers walk at Brazil units," American Metal Market, March 4, 1991.
 CETESB, report on environmental and public contamination by lead, at the farm "Sol da Mata," near Tonolli, March 6, 1989.
 "Fae leva multa depois de ser elogiada por alemaes," Vale do Paraiba, March 1988.
 Jakarta Post articles and Indonesian government records.
 Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1993.
 Andrea Ford, "Firm Agrees to Clean Up Tijuana Site," Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1993.
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
 Greenpeace International.
 Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1993.
 Letter from Delfin J. Ganapin, Office of the Undersecretary for Environment and Research, Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to Raul Ch. Rabe, Director General, Office of American Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs, Manila, 3 April 1991.
 Felicidad T Castro, M.D., Chief, Health Control Division, Occupational Safety and Health Centre, Philippines, "The Biological Levels of Lead in Selected Workers," paper submitted to the second National Occupational Safety and Health Congress, September 1991, Quezon City, Philippines.
 Center for Investigative Reporting with Bill Moyers, Global Dumping Ground: the International Traffic in Hazardous Waste (Seven Locks Press, U.S., 1990).
 American Metal Market, October 19, 1992.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Commodity Export Statistics, 1990-93.
 Letter from Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency to Greenpeace, 1990.
 Center for Investigative Reporting.
 Brent Walth, "Blind Faith," Wilamette Week, September 24-30, 1987.
 U.S. EPA records.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Commodity Export Statistics, 1990-93.
 Klomjit Chandrapanya, "Indecent Disposal," FOCUS, The Nation (Thailand), September 2, 1993.