Key facts about used lead-acid battery recycling

The global lead-acid battery industry is worth about $65 billion annually, but when used batteries are recycled, the process has been identified as the most polluting in the world.

The lead metal value from smelters that mainly recycle used batteries, is expected to be $17.5 billion in 2021, according to Wood Mackenzie principal lead analyst Farid Ahmed.

Below are some of the key facts about this industry:

POTENT NEUROTOXIN

Lead is the main element used in lead-acid batteries.

The metal currently trades around $2,000 per tonne on the London Metal Exchange.

Environment agencies Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland have said lead battery recycling is the most polluting industry in the world.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially in children, where even low-level exposure is associated with a reduction in IQ scores, shortened attention spans and potentially violent and even criminal behaviour later in life, according to a United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and Pure Earth report.

Blood lead levels (BLL) of over 5 micrograms of lead per decilitre (ugdl) of blood are considered dangerous by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 800 million children worldwide have dangerously high levels of the heavy metal, according to the UNICEF and Pure Earth report.

Their exposure to lead includes breathing dust and fumes from informal and backyard lead-acid battery recycling units and open-air smelters, eating food contaminated by lead-glazed pottery and working in electronic waste dumps.

INFORMAL SECTOR

As much as half of the lead-acid battery recycling in the world ends up in the “informal” sector, according to the UNICEF- Pure Earth report.

A white paper by the Global Battery Alliance in partnership with the World Economic Forum estimates that there are between 10,000 to 30,000 informal battery recycling sites globally.

Africa, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia are among the regions blighted by informal recycling but not all operations there are informal or of poor standard, International Lead Association Regulatory Affairs Director Dr. Steve Binks said.

In China, the world’s largest lead-acid battery market, a large portion of used lead-acid batteries has been recycled in an unorganised way, said Jianbin Meng, Director of Economics and Environment at the Portugal-based International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG).

LEAD RECYCLING

In 2020, about 12.4 million tonnes of refined lead was produced, including from primary or mined sources and secondary sources, according to Wood Mackenzie data.

About two-thirds of refined lead is produced through recycling.

About 86% of refined lead is used in lead acid battery production in the world, according to estimates by ILZSG.

LARGEST SECTOR FOR LEAD-ACID BATTERIES

By value, about 60% of lead-acid batteries are used in cars, according to data estimated by the International Lead Association.

Lead-acid batteries are also used in industrial machinery like forklifts and cranes, as well as in data centres and e-bikes.

REFINED LEAD CONSUMPTION FOR BATTERIES

China was the biggest market player in terms of lead consumption for batteries followed by Europe and the United States.