battery bandwagon: how to thwart the flow of used car batteries
Each year, more than 520 million pounds of
spent lead acid batteries (SLABs) generated in the United States
are trucked across our southern border into Mexico. Sent by profit-hungry
corporations, these batteries are destined for recycling facilities
with sub-par emissions controls and lax worker safety protections.
SLAB exports have grown dramatically in recent years, due largely
to the implementation of stricter environmental and worker safety
regulations enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency and
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Seeking to
maximize profit, battery brokers and recyclers are taking advantage
of Mexico’s weaker environmental regulations, occupational safety
standards and cheaper wages at the expense of the environment,
worker safety and the health of local communities.
SLABs, or used car batteries, are made of lead, plastic and sulfuric
acid – a toxic combination that can cause health problems and
environmental harm when not recycled correctly. Sulfuric acid
can seep into groundwater, while lead emissions can affect workers
and settle in surrounding communities, causing developmental
disabilities in children, loss of neurological functioning in
adults and even coma or death in the most extreme cases.
In June 2011, a new study conducted by Occupational Knowledge
International and Fronteras Comunes underscored the critical
importance of recycling SLABs domestically. Titled, “Exporting
Hazards”, the report finds that ULABs, an acronym used interchangeably
with SLABs, are being exported to and recycled in Mexico under
less stringent standards, resulting in significantly higher occupational
and environmental exposures. The report also highlights the fact
that the problem is growing exponentially. In 2010, imports to
Mexico increased 112 percent from the previous year.
In one instance, the report cites an unlicensed and unregulated
battery recycling facility operating next to an open air market.
Because the emissions from lead battery recycling plants in Mexico
are nearly 20 times higher than in the United States, and lead
emissions do not travel far, it is logical to assume that families
who buy and sell from this market are at greater risk of lead
Also, with the Permissible Exposure Limit for airborne lead three
times higher in Mexican recycling facilities, workers at these
plants are at greater risk from significant workplace exposure.
While this data is alarming, it may not be the worst case scenario.
The report also found that less than half of all approved Mexican
recyclers report any lead emissions to authorities. The logical
conclusion is that other recyclers do not report at all because
their emissions far exceed permissible levels.
Given all of the apparent risks associated with battery recycling,
why not ship them outside the States? The answer is simple: domestic
recyclers can do it better and safer here, and maintain the green
jobs so vital to our own economy.
Battery recycling in the United States is largely considered
an environmental success story, with 95 to 97 percent of States-produced
batteries domestically recycled every year. The United States
also has enacted some of the world’s strictest emissions standards,
requiring battery recyclers to upgrade their technology to comply
with new regulations. To safeguard worker health and minimize
community impact, recycling facilities across the nation are
implementing some of the world’s most advanced recycling technology,
which all but eliminates worker and community exposure.
It is also important to remember that every battery shipped across
our borders impacts the number of jobs this industry can sustain.
With a national unemployment rate above nine percent, every job
counts in this recovering economy.
Recycling batteries here at home ensures that lead will be efficiently
recycled; environmental impact will be minimized; worker and
community health will be protected; and, American jobs will be
maintained. As a nation, we have the knowledge, the state-of-the-art
technology and the skilled work force to do the job. There is
simply no excuse for dumping American waste on our international
neighbors who lack the infrastructure, technology and regulatory
oversight to dispose of the toxic materials safely and effectively.
—Diane L. Cullo is the Director of SLAB Watchdog