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The tragedy of Nanya battery recycling

  Rakhan was as happy as he had won the lottery. The 45-year-old middle-aged man paid Rs 50 for a used car battery. In India’s capital, New Delhi, thousands of kabaddiwalas (thrift dealers) roam the streets looking for used newspapers, empty glass bottles, and all kinds of items that can sell for a few bucks on the recycling market. Rakhan is one of them. If he can sell the battery, he can earn 3760 rupees, which is not a small sum of money, after all, his monthly income is only 30,000 rupees.
  In 1859, French physicist Gaston Plante invented the lead-acid battery. To this day, the battery remains the number one energy storage technology in the automotive, telecommunications and energy sectors, accounting for 86% of global lead consumption.
  In recent years, with the rise of electric vehicles, the use of solar energy has become more and more widespread, and the trend of electrification has become more and more obvious. In this context, lead-acid battery production has also grown exponentially. In 2019, the global lead-acid battery market was valued at USD 41.6 billion. In 2024, this figure is expected to reach $52.5 billion.
  The huge increase in demand for lead-acid batteries has led to the emergence of a large number of informal small factories in South Asia to dismantle and recycle lead-acid batteries. However, the operation of this informal battery recycling plant is one of the most polluting production activities in the world. Between 2017 and 2018, 1.2 million tonnes of lead-acid batteries were recycled in India, but 90% of them were dismantled by informal factories. After Rakhan or other Kabaddiwala sells the used batteries, the buyer sends the batteries to a metal smelter on the outskirts of New Delhi, where the lead is extracted and resold to other factories.

The huge increase in demand for lead-acid batteries has led to the emergence of a large number of informal small factories in South Asia to dismantle and recycle lead-acid batteries.

Plastic case removed from lead-acid battery

A formal battery recycling factory in India

Informal battery recycling activities in South Asia are the main cause of “lead exposure”. Many people die from lead poisoning, and it is difficult for survivors to live a normal life, especially in children, which can cause irreversible developmental damage.
| Illegal recycling factories that are difficult to ban |

  Muradnagar, a small city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, not far from New Delhi, is one of many recycling centers for lead-acid batteries, with abandoned illegal lead smelters everywhere. Next to the lush green farmland, the small factories banned by the government are empty. Discarded battery casings litter the acid-contaminated ground.
  ”These smelters were demolished two years ago, and everyone is very happy,” said a local resident. “We couldn’t even breathe before.” However, although the factories were demolished, the residents’ problems have not been fully resolved. “The stench can often be smelled at night in summer,” said another resident. He believes that these factories have not been completely banned, they have just been replaced and better hidden. “These factories are temporary, and the factory owner only needs to make money,” he continued.
  Illegal factories are not equipped with pollution prevention systems and discharge harmful gases and sewage directly into the surrounding environment. These factories have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain, and disappeared overnight like a flash in the pan. It is difficult for the government to fully control illegal activities. “All we can do when we receive a complaint is to shut down the factory’s water and electricity,” said a government official.
  Residents mostly boycott such illegal recycling factories. Vijapa Bagel, founder of an NGO, explained: “These factories do not comply with pollution prevention regulations at all. Even if they are punished by the government, they are only temporarily closed.”
  Although the factories were banned, the environment could not Restored in a short period of time. “After the battery recycling campaign stopped, the lead levels in the land remained high and persisted for years,” said Priti Mahesh, program commissioner for the nonprofit Toxic Links.
  In 2001, the Indian government promulgated the “Battery Management Regulations”. The regulations stipulate that manufacturers and sellers of lead-acid batteries are responsible for recycling used batteries from buyers and sending them to regular recyclers for disposal.
  However, according to a 2017 survey on the implementation of the Battery Regulations, the pollution control departments of Indian states do not have relevant information and rarely produce compliance reports. The Delhi Urban Development Master Plan 2021 stipulates that local enterprises are prohibited from using lead in the production process and the recovery of lead from waste materials is prohibited. As a result, battery recycling factories have flocked to towns near the capital, such as Muradnagar.
|”Lead Exposure” Causes Health Problems |

  Lead is a heavy metal that builds up in the body and causes a variety of health problems, especially the brain and central nervous system. According to a UNICEF report, lead poisoning kills 900,000 people every year, accounting for 1.5% of the world’s total. The World Health Organization states that as long as there is lead in the blood, it is dangerous, regardless of the concentration.
  Despite this, the metal is still widely used in industry, such as the production of batteries and paints. Fragrances and cosmetics also contain lead. In low- and middle-income countries, battery recycling activities are the leading cause of “lead exposure”.
  Most of the battery recycling factories in South Asia violate the laws and regulations, and the industrial scale and number of factories are difficult to predict, but the incidence data of lead poisoning shows the seriousness of the problem. Lead pollution kills 233,000 people a year in India, 30,800 in Bangladesh and 3,760 in Nepal, according to the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution. Lead poisoning not only kills people, it also makes life difficult for survivors and causes irreversible developmental damage to children.
  According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure to lead causes 217 million disability-adjusted life years globally, with low- and middle-income countries being the most affected.
  In Bangladesh, 118,000 tons of lead-acid batteries are abandoned every year. However, there are only two formal battery recyclers in the country, and only four battery manufacturers are registered in the official recycler directory.
  The same is true in India. Jharkhand, the poorest state in the country, has 672 battery recycling plants, but only two have formal licenses. Shiv Shankar’s recycling factory is one of the regular factories located in the industrial area of ​​Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. “Lead-acid batteries can be worth up to 60 percent of their original value when properly recycled,” Shankar said.
| Protective measures |

  Shankar’s employees often complained of headaches and difficulty breathing, so he installed an air filtration system and forced employees to wear masks and gloves. Since then, there has not been a single case of lead poisoning in the factory. “The lead-acid battery recycling industry is notorious,” Shankar sighed.
  In Pakistan, factory owners like Shankar are rare. “Most of the formal lead-acid battery recycling plants are located on the outskirts of the city,” said Uddin Khan of the Cleaner Production Institute. “Pakistan also lacks a strong buyback policy.” He believes that legal measures against illegal recycling plants are not much. Meaning, the problem should be solved from the source, “Battery manufacturers should be responsible for their products to the end.”
  Uddin Khan pointed out that in recent years, the use of lead-acid batteries has increased significantly, mainly because of frequent power outages, residents can only use lead Acid batteries are running, and motor vehicle ownership is on the rise.
  Neighboring Nepal is also suffering from the same disease. Jyoti Giri, a professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, pointed out: “Used batteries will be transported to the southern Terai area for disassembly.” Waste battery recycling plants are mostly located near water systems to facilitate acid extraction. These factories did not strictly abide by the relevant regulations, there were obvious loopholes in the operation process, and the protective measures were extremely inadequate. “With just a little exposure to lead, lead enters the bloodstream,”
  adds Giri. Rakhan, one of many kabaddiwalas in India, replied when asked what he thought of illegal battery recycling plants “People just need to stop using batteries. I just want to do my job.”
  Uddin Khan, who lives near the India-Pakistan border, said: “Recycling toxic substances in the right way is critical. There is still a long way to go in terms of awareness.”

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