Backyard lead acid recycling tops World's Worst Polluter list

Backyard recycling of lead acid car batteries is the number one source of chemical pollution in the world’s poorer nations, according to a new report.

The World’s Worst Pollution Problems, published by NGO’s Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland, identifies the worst and most dangerously polluted places on the planet, aiming to raise awareness around the globe of the extent of toxic pollution in low and middle income countries.

Topping the list of the 10 most polluting activities in low and middle income countries, backyard recycling of car batteries is said to be leading to millions of years of healthy life being lost.

The rising demand for automobiles in low and middle income countries is driving the upsurge in demand for lead. South-east Asia is noted as being a hotspot for informal lead acid battery recycling, but it also occurs in Africa and Central and South America.

Lead acid battery recycling

Used lead acid batteries are classed as hazardous waste. When recycled properly the battery, plastic and metallic components are all separated. The plastics are recycled and usually used to manufacture more battery cases. The used lead plates and paste material are smelted to remove any impurities and used in the manufacture of new lead acid batteries, thereby making a continuous closed loop system.

The dangerous informal recycling methods described in the report take place in homes, where batteries are opened with axes or hammers. Smelting of the metallic components occurs out in the open or inside domestic homes, and the toxic waste products are disposed of into the surrounding environment untreated. Children are particularly vulnerable to the lead pollution, which can profoundly affect their development.

Informal lead acid battery recycling is responsible for up to 4.8m lost 'Dalys' each year, which is a year of healthy living lost by a person as a result of harm to their health. Mining, leather tanning, rubbish dumps and the dye industry are also among the most polluting activities harming health and causing early deaths.

Clarity Environmental Director, Philip Honcoop, who heads up our battery trading division, said: “There are highly stringent legal requirements for the treatment, recycling and disposal of lead acid batteries in the UK. Given the hazardous nature of batteries, we have to make sure that they are safely stored, handled and transported throughout the recycling process. The strict practices we have come to expect are a stark contrast to the informal operations taking place elsewhere in the world.

“With the increasing demand for new batteries, backyard lead acid recycling is a rising concern and I am pleased that this devastating practice is being highlighted by the report.”

Watch the lifecycle of a car battery here, which describes the journey from when the dead battery is removed from your car, to the lead being recycled and used to make new batteries.

Photo:  Larry C. Price

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