Contributor: Mr. Edmund Minimah
Managing Partner, Freed Capitals

Date: 23rd March, 2023.

Recycling used lead-acid batteries is of public health concern because this industry is associated with a high level of occupational exposure and environmental emissions. Furthermore, there are no known safe levels of exposure to lead, and the health impacts of lead exposure are significant.

Growth in the recycling economy has the potential to not only conserve the environment, but also create over a million new jobs in Nigeria. Public health and environment concerns are one of the many issues posed to government at all levels, private sector investors and the energy-demanding populace. By addressing this challenge, the opportunity to create healthier energy-friendly cities, secure sustainability and ensure that recycling jobs are mutually beneficial, is addressed.

Let’s have a look at what recycling lead-acid batteries entails.

At each of these stages, lead fumes and dust are released into the air, contaminating both the workplace and the wider environment. The use of automated, enclosed processes with pollution control devices can reduce these emissions.

In a typical automated enclosed process, the lead batteries are broken up in a hammermill or shredder and the pieces are fed into tanks filled with water. Here gravity is used to separate the components: the lead and heavy materials sink to the bottom and the plastics rise to the top. The plastic materials are skimmed away and the liquid, including the liquid, sulfuric acid electrolyte is drawn off. Waste from recycling is collected, treated, and disposed of at a designated waste disposal site. In a manual process the batteries are drained then broken up with electric saws, machetes, or axes. The components are separated by hand into piles. The lead components are carried into the furnace or taken on an open conveyer belt. The furnace may, in the worst case, be no more than an open pot on a fire. Manually breaking up the battery’s releases lead particles and lead oxide dust, which are a source of lead exposure to the worker. The dust and particles also settle in the surrounding soil and may be blown to more distant areas, contaminating the wider environment and becoming a source of exposure to the community.

The economic impact of lead exposure is made up of direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include those associated with screening and the medical care of acute and chronic lead poisoning, as well as the provision of special education to the handlers. Indirect costs reflect the economic burden on society from a variety of factors including reduced intelligence and the consequent reduction in economic productivity and tax revenue.

At every stage in the recycling process there are measures that can be taken to prevent or reduce the release of lead. To minimize lead exposure and environmental contamination, lead battery recycling should only be conducted at adequately equipped facilities that have the requisite engineering controls, trained staff and provision of protective equipment. Measures that should be taken at battery collection and storage sites include the following:

It is clear from these measures that informal recyclers cannot carry out the functions of battery recycling efficiently. Preventing informal recycling presents several challenges and it is important to take a holistic approach. Informal recycling is often carried out in a covert pattern e.g., at night or in a constantly changing location, hence making it difficult to clamp down their operations. The life cycle of a lead-acid battery involves manufacturers, retailers, scrap dealers, secondary smelters and consumers. Each can play a part in mitigating the effect of improper recycling of batteries.

Some suggested approaches are:

As clearly stated here, recycling of lead-acid batteries must be carried out with care to minimize environmental contamination. While much of the responsibility lies in the industry players, government at all levels should play a lead role in ensuring that policy frameworks are enforced and complied with. Government shouldn’t be seen to over-regulate or create bottlenecks for industry players but serve as a guide and partner of success.

The full adoption of renewable clean energy will play a major role in the growing of our GDP if properly harnessed.