The battery bandwagon: how to thwart the flow of used car batteries to Mexico

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 exposure.

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