How do you solve a problem like lead battery recycling?

An increased global emphasis on low carbon initiatives is set to significantly increase the demand for batteries, leading to concerns surrounding the responsible management of lead throughout the lifecycle of automotive and industrial batteries.

The rapid rise of electrification seemingly took us all by surprise – not least the automotive industry; but now there’s no stopping it.

For example, it’s estimated that there will be more than 18 million electric vehicles on our roads by the end of the decade.

Power socket of an electric car. Close up - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The resulting increase in demand for batteries and energy storage technologies is already intensifying competition for access to raw materials. More worryingly, it may present growth opportunities to the unregulated recycling sector.

In the US and in Europe, lead battery recycling is achieved in a closed loop (where the battery materials are recycled back into new batteries), with up to 99% reportedly being recycled.

However, in some low and middle-income countries, improper and unregulated battery recycling of lead batteries can cause serious health risks for employees and nearby communities.

In an effort to address the improper use of substandard manufacturing and recycling operations, a global alliance of lead and lead battery industry groups has adopted a set of guiding principles designed to protect workers and the environment.

Announced to coincide with the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos this week, the framework focuses on continuous improvement and globally-shared best practice.

The industry groups – the International Lead Association (ILA), US-based Battery Council International (BCI), the Association of Battery Recyclers (ABR) and EU-based automotive and industrial battery association EUROBAT –  have signed up to seven key principles and launched a taskforce to implement a wide-ranging material stewardship programme.

Lead Battery Recycling super batteries - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

“The guiding principles represent an agreement between the organisations, and participating member companies, to develop performance indicators and policies that will ensure continuous improvement in the management of lead exposure and emissions and further minimise the environmental impact of used lead batteries,” according to ILA.

The principles also promote the adoption of responsible sourcing policies, working through supply chains to ensure that the lead used for battery manufacturing is produced from environmentally sound recycling practices.

In September 2019, the groups agreed to move forward with this programme and have been collaborating over the past four months to agree this set of principles, according to BCI President, David Shaffer.

The Guiding Principles:

  1. Support responsible battery manufacturing and recycling by placing environmental health and safety excellence at the heart of our operations.
  2. Promote the sound management of lead exposure and emissions by setting continuous improvement targets and sharing best practices.
  3. Adopt responsible sourcing policies for lead containing materials, seek to identify risks in the supply chain, and use our influence to promote best practices for EHS performance in suppliers’ operations.
  4. Minimise the environmental impact of our products by encouraging the development of programmes that ensure effective collection, transportation and environmentally sound recycling of used lead batteries.
  5. Adopt business practices that consider the communities impacted by our operationsrespect the human and labour rights of our employees and work against corruption in all its forms.
  6. Proactively engage key stakeholders in an open and transparent manner.
  7. Partner with key stakeholders and government agencies to share our expertise and promote environmentally sound recycling of lead batteries in low and medium-income countries.

A taskforce of the associations will reportedly oversee the project which will include setting measures for member companies to assess their performance and ensure they are aligned with the guiding principles.

Additional resources will be provided to continue outreach and best practice sharing in low and middle-income countries alongside the United Nations Environment Programme and with NGOs who are working to reduce the impact of pollution from informal recycling of lead batteries.

Where and why is lead used around the world?

1 billion vehicles worldwide use lead-based batteries to start the engine and power the on-board electronics

Lead-based batteries provide cost-effective storage for renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power

Lead has the highest recycling and reuse rates compared to other major metals and lead-based batteries, the main application for lead, has a recycling rate above 95%.

Advanced lead-based batteries are used in the latest micro-hybrid and hybrid electric vehicles to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

Architectural lead sheet will outlast any other roofing material and is 100% recyclable.

Lead is unrivalled as a barrier to radiation in medical scanning equipment used in hospitals, dental surgeries and laboratories.

*Courtesy of the International Lead Association (ILA)

*Images courtesy of Depositphotos