Stopping SLAB exports: how to solve the problem

Spent lead-acid battery (SLAB) exportation is a very real and expanding problem. Each year more than 520 million pounds of SLABs are exported to Mexico alone. Under a best case scenario the used batteries are recycled in facilities with much weaker environmental regulations than in the United States. Because only half of all Mexican recyclers report to the appropriate regulators, we do know that the ones that do report emit 20 times more toxic pollutants than a comparable United States facility.

Under a worst case scenario, SLAB Watchdog believes Mexico hosts countless backyard recycling efforts where workers, families and communities are exposed to lead emissions and particulates, and where sulfuric acid is allowed to soak into the ground water. Two findings documented in Occupational Knowledge International’s report, “Exporting Hazards,” lead us to believe this situation is possible. First, Mexico does not have a waste manifest system to track the batteries entering the country to ensure they are not being diverted to “guerilla” recyclers. Secondly, the report documents an unlicensed, unregulated battery recycler operating next to an open air market.

These revelations, in conjunction with enduring economic troubles that have pushed domestic unemployment above nine percent, are why the exportation of SLABs must be stopped. With domestic recyclers using the best technology available, operating under strict environmental regulations and continuously innovating to create better technology that all but eliminates emissions regulations, there is no justifiable reason to export a single car battery, let alone more than half a billion pounds of SLABs annually.

Stopping this problem is essential. It is not just a matter of right and wrong, but it can be a matter of life and death. Stopping this practice also will help create American jobs and build a stronger green economy. For some time the avenues to stop SLAB exportation seemed difficult and unattainable; however, recent movement on e-waste exportation gives hope to those opposed to battery exportation.

The most direct, but most difficult ways to stop SLABs from crossing into Mexico include passage of a law making the practice illegal or the ratification of the Basel Convention and its amendments. Unfortunately, current political realities and a lack of desire from elected officials to engage this debate force consideration of alternative methods. In recent months, thanks to the work of many e-waste advocates, the federal government –through EPA and the General Services Administration – is considering banning the export of all e-waste generated by federal government sources.

Given the similarity between the two issues it only makes sense that SLABs be included in any government effort to ban e-waste exportation. With more than 20 lbs. of lead in each SLAB, the size of the SLAB problem dwarfs e-waste. In fact, Occupational Knowledge International noted in its report, “Exporting Hazards” that “twice as much lead is exported to Mexico in used batteries than is exported in all the electronic waste exported from the States.”

While it is estimated the federal government replaces 10,000 computers per week, the amount of SLABs from the 600,000 cars and trucks the federal government owns or leases also needs to be addressed. Add to that amount all the boats, planes, helicopters and emergency back-up systems owned by the government that use lead acid batteries and it becomes clear: the United States government must have a better plan to ensure its SLABs are not sent to developing countries for disposal or reclamation.

SLAB Watchdog believes that if the federal government prevents the exportation SLABs generated from government sources it will prompt two subsequent actions. First we believe local governments will realize they have a responsibility to ensure SLABs generated by their fleets and purchased with taxpayer money or collected through municipal waste streams, need to remain in the States. Second, we feel the burden to separate government batteries from others collected by the battery brokers and dealers who arrange the disposal of government SLABs will be too great to justify the practice. Instead, we anticipate they will avoid the extra expense and simply send all the collected batteries to domestic recycling sources.

Recycling batteries here at home ensures that lead will be safely and efficiently recycled; environmental impact will be minimized; worker and community health will be protected; and, American jobs will be maintained. By including SLABs with the federal government’s efforts on e-waste, we foresee a not too distant future where local, state and federal governments realize that batteries purchased with taxpayer dollars cannot be sent to developing countries to be recycled. Once governments take steps to correct this growing problem, we expect the domino effect to cause private companies to follow suit in short order.

Protecting American jobs, growing domestic recycling industries and safeguarding the environment are all within reach if we realize that SLABs and e-waste cannot and must not be exported.

—Diane L. Cullo is the Director of SLAB Watchdog