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Where do China's used batteries go?

China’s lead-acid battery industry is awaiting sentence. Following frequent incidents of lead contamination, several hundred companies suspected of pollution have been shut down by the government, and new regulations for entering the industry are about to be published. But some environmental protection groups believe it’s too early to call a happy ending.

On October 27, Chinese environmental NGOs Global Village Beijing and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, together with US organisation Occupational Knowledge International, released a report entitled “The effects of China’s lead-acid battery manufacturing and recycling industry on health and the environment”. It concluded that China’s recycling industry is far from able to keep up with the scale of production in the lead-acid battery industry.

The report says: “Up until now, China still hasn’t established a comprehensive network for used-battery recycling. The shortcomings of government supervision, as well as a lack of organised recycling systems, have led to the emergence of a large number of small-scale recycling factories.”

It goes on to say that although China has a policy on the prevention and control of pollution from used batteries and a law promoting the circular economy, these do not have specific clauses for implementation, nor do they stipulate which department should supervise collection and which department should penalise companies that violate the rules.

According to April data from the Chinese Resource Recycling Association Network, China has over 300 lead-recycling companies (mainly engaged in recycling lead-acid batteries), of which half lack certification and are therefore in violation of regulations. Investment costs are as low as 50,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan, and over 90% don’t meet the necessary conditions for operating within the lead and zinc industries. Furthermore, according to Chinese regulations, a lead-acid battery recycling company which accords with standards must invest at least 200 million yuan.

China is the world’s largest producer of lead-acid batteries. From 2004 to 2010, output increased by 133%. Executive director of Occupational Knowledge International Perry Gottesfeld said China’s lead-acid battery output already accounts for 45% of the world’s total. Yet the new report indicates that average recycling rates for China’s lead-recycling factories are 80% to 85%, falling short of the 95% recycling rates of developed countries.

According to data from the World Health Organisation, of the 120 million people overexposed to lead in their environment, 99% of serious cases occur in developing countries. “Production and smelting of lead-acid batteries is shifting toward developing countries, yet these countries commonly lack collection and recycling facilities, as well as mechanisms for supervision of health,” said Gottesfeld.

In recent years, incidents of lead pollution have been frequent in China. Since 2009 alone, there have been more than 30 reported cases of serious lead poisoning. A 2009 research report in Science Total Environment said that 24% of Chinese children have blood-lead quantities exceeding WHO warning levels. Children have become the main victims of lead contamination.

Image courtesy of Sina

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