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Automotive recyclers should address export of lead batteries for economy

There is no doubt the growing national focus on sustainability and environmental protection has been beneficial to the growth of the American recycling industry. With an estimated yearly economic impact of more than $100 billion supporting 137,000 jobs, recycling is an important component of our economy that also offers significant environmental benefits. Few industries have embraced and benefitted more from a commitment to recycling than the automotive industry.

According to industry figures, nearly 13 million cars are recycled each year and every new car sold contains 25 percent recycled steel. The success doesn’t stop there; recycled plastic soda bottles, carpet fibers, used tires and a host of other materials are being utilized in new cars. The growing success of recycling autos and using recycled materials in new vehicles will continue, but we must remain ever vigilant for threats to this success. One such threat that requires attention from consumers and manufacturers alike is the reclamation of the spent lead acid batteries (SLABs) present in every car, truck, boat and industrial vehicle.

On the surface, battery recycling is a success story with more than 96 percent of all SLABs being recycled, yet a closer looks reveals a darker trend that we see being repeated too often in the recycling of products like computers, cell phones and televisions. Increasingly SLABs are brokered, sold off and exported to developing countries for recycling under questionable environmental and workplace safety controls that are far weaker than those found in American recycling facilities.

Since 2007, the number of dead car, truck and utility vehicle batteries exported to Mexico increased by 326 percent. Last year alone approximately 20 percent of all batteries or 754 million lbs. of SLABS were sent across the border. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent in weight to the Empire State Building.

In the best case scenario, these batteries are recycled in self-contained Mexican facilities with much weaker environmental regulations than in the United States. In the worst case scenario, the batteries are sent to countless unregulated and unlicensed backyard recycling operations where workers, families and communities are exposed to lead emissions and other harmful particulates while sulfuric acid is allowed to soak into the ground water.

Either way, the reason for concern is clear and pressing. According to “Exporting Hazards,” a 2011 report by Occupational Knowledge International and Fronteras Comunes, a Mexican non-governmental organization, Mexican battery recyclers emit 20 times more lead than comparable U.S. facilities. The permissible exposure limit for airborne lead in the work place is three times higher in Mexico than in the United States. In addition, average blood lead levels among workers as reported by a recycling plant in Mexico are five times higher than the average reported by a U.S. recycler.

People living near substandard battery recycling facilities are at higher risk of lead exposure, which is especially dangerous for children who are uniquely vulnerable to the threat from lead poisoning. A December 2011, New York Times investigative report on SLAB exports titled, “Lead From Old U.S. Batteries Sent to Mexico Raises Risks” revealed that a soil sample taken from a schoolyard near a battery recycler in Mexico had five times more lead than is allowed in the U.S.

This sample was taken before the United States Centers for Disease Control announced in May, 2012 that it had lowered the threshold of acceptable lead concentration in children for the first time since 1991, stating clearly “there is no safe level of lead exposure.” Taking these recent actions into consideration, it is safe to say that America’s contribution to Mexico’s high lead pollution levels is simply unacceptable.

Not only do SLAB exports represent a health threat, they also represent a threat to our nation’s economy. Every spent battery that is exported reduces the domestic feedstock for American recyclers and American workers. At a time when unemployment remains persistently high and communities are looking for ways to expand employment, we have the opportunity to protect jobs and grow the domestic recycling industry. Stopping the exportation of SLABs also will contribute to the auto industry’s recycling success story. With domestic recyclers using the best technology available, operating under strict environmental regulations and continuously innovating to create better technology, there is no justifiable reason to export a single car battery, let alone more than three quarters of a billion pounds annually.