The Multinational Monitor



Battery Assault

The Recycling Myth

by Madeleine Cobbing and Simon Divecha

MANILA - Workers at the Parker Batteries plant, one of a number of small battery recyclers located in the back streets of Manila, gasp for air in unventilated rooms filled with sulfuric acid fumes. The workers, who wear no protective clothing, exhibit signs of lead contamination, their teeth blackened by years of inhaling lead.

Lead waste and sulfuric acid drain into open sewers, which, in turn, drain into the slums surrounding the factory, and slags from the lead smelter lie on the open ground.

The vast majority of the waste batteries shipped to the Philippines in 1993 went not to the back-alley operations in Manila, however, but to Lead Smelters Inc., a lead smelter near Manila which recently changed its name to Philippines Recyclers Inc. (PRI). Workers at PRI, like those at Parker Batteries, have "significantly higher levels of lead" in their blood compared to workers from other industries using lead, according to official occupational health and safety studies. Despite emission controls devices on the PRI 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.

The source of a high proportion of the toxics poisoning the PRI and Parker Batteries workers and surrounding communities is battery scrap imported from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Those five countries shipped more than 16,000 (metric) tonnes of battery scrap to the Philippines in the first six months of 1993 - 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. 6969.

Indonesia has taken a more aggressive approach to stop battery imports (which are banned by law) and regulate battery recyclers, but there too the industry is taking a heavy toll on workers and communities.

Environment and health officials have 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 10 lead-acid battery recycling factories because of pollution and occupational health violations.

The government has attempted to target importers, prosecuting individual lead-acid battery importers and impounding more than 100 container loads of lead-acid battery waste in various ports. These efforts have failed to stem the foreign waste invasion, however. Australia is the main culprit; in 1992, it exported more than 11,000 tonnes of battery scrap to Indonesia. And shipments from the United Kingdom are actually on the rise; in the first five months of 1993, the country shipped over 700 tonnes of lead-acid batteries to Indonesia, compared to only 200 tonnes in 1992.

IMLI, located south of Surabaya, is the largest battery waste importing plant in Indonesia. When it began operation in the late 1980s, villagers believed it was a wood processing plant. In fact, 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 and frequently cough up 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 Indonesian occupational health standards permit.

IMLI 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 subjecting themselves to even more toxic exposure.

The horrific scenes in and around IMLI, PRI and Parker Batteries are replicated in Thailand, Brazil, Mexico and throughout the Third World. Secondary lead smelters in Third World nations are discharging acid into waterways, dumping residual wastes outside property gates and poisoning workers, villagers and their families. These operations represent the reality behind the lead-acid battery industry's environmentally-friendly recycling rhetoric - a painful reality borne by Third World workers and communities.

Moving South

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 United Kingdom, for example, the secondary lead industry faces what industry ana lysts call a "critical situation." The British Lead Development Association warns 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 United Kingdom are predicting that most lead smelters there will close within the next four years.

The secondary lead industry has already moved out of North America en masse, a shift widely attributed to the costs of complying with environmental protection regulations. 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." A U.S. Bureau of Mines report adds that "waste disposal is becoming a very significant expense and is often a difficult task to perform," and links the problems to the closures.

Much of the lead recycling industry is now housed in the Third World, where recycling factories are able to operate unhindered by strict environmental standards - or are able to circumvent poorly enforced regulations. The Bureau of Mines report concluded that "Foreign smelters can afford to bid a higher price for scrap because their capital, labor and environmental costs are lower than U.S. producers." And the American Metal Market notes, "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."

The bottom line is that foreign and especially Third World countries have become the receptacle for U.S. and other industrial nation's waste:

  • In 1992, Australia exported more than 17,000 tonnes of lead battery scrap to Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.
  • Each year, according to a government source, Japan exports 30,000 tonnes of lead-acid auto batteries to Southeast Asia.
  • In 1992, the United Kingdom 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 nine months of 1993; the major destinations were the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Brazil.
  • In the first nine months of 1993, the United States exported 41,527 tons of lead scrap. More than 78 percent 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.

Painting lead green

At the same time as environmental concerns have driven lead recycling operations to the Third World, environmental concerns have also driven the industrialized countries' lead-acid battery industry to place a new emphasis on recycling. With environmentalists beginning to focus attention on the industry that is now responsible for more than half of global lead use, lead-acid battery manufacturers followed the lead of the plastics industry and began using the cloak of "recycling" to hide the impact of its products' wastes.

In the early 1990s, the industry launched a full-scale recycling campaign. A May 1991 news release from Battery Council International, a trade association representing the international lead battery industry, illustrates the industry's propaganda strategy. Titled "Consumers Need to Be Jump Started on the Importance of Recycling Lead Batteries," the news release proclaims: "Recyclable lead batteries work hard behind the scenes keeping heart surgeons operating when a storm knocks out electricity, starting cars on subzero 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 United States, 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, But as workers and neighbors of Third World battery recycling operations like Indonesia's IMLI and the Philippines PRI can attest, the notion of environmentally-sound battery recycling is a cruel hoax.

Madeleine Cobbing and Simon Divecha are campaigners with the Greenpeace International Waste Trade Project.

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