Battery Council International estimates that 98.7% of lead from lead acid batteries is recycled. This makes lead acid batteries (think car and industrial batteries) the most recycled commodity in America. So, what happens when you bring your spent car battery back to the store?
According to a 2011 New York Times investigative report, at least 20% of spent American vehicle and industrial batteries are actually exported to Mexico for recycling. This number is skyrocketing; one report estimated that the 2011 figure represented more than a 500% increase from 2004, just 7 years before. And this figure does not take into account the growing number of batteries smuggled into Mexico from US battery brokers.
So, why send a battery all the way to Mexico to recycle it? Mexico’s environmental regulations are more lax, with lead emission limits up to 3 or 4 times the amount permitted from US recycling plants (and, according to the NYT article, even the regulations that are on the books often aren’t enforced). Add to this the fact that the labor is cheaper, and you can save a whole lot of money by recycling a battery across the border. But these cost savings aren’t without their consequences. The NYT article offers numerous accounts of workers hacking apart lead acid batteries with a hammer and little personal protection. In many neighborhoods surrounding recycling facilities, blood lead levels are often measured at levels four times what is considered ‘high risk’ in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Mexico has a major financial incentive to accept these batteries and recover the lead cheaply. The price of scrap lead has been steadily climbing over the last several years. Today scrap lead is worth about 55 cents/pound, up from 5 cents/pound not 15 years ago. As of 2011, Mexico shipped at least $150 million worth of scrap lead to China per year.
The increasing export of lead acid batteries from the US to Mexico has made it more and more difficult for US recyclers to compete. This presents an interesting situation considering that the last primary lead smelter in the US closed down in December of last year. While the US met about 80% of its lead needs from recycled scrap in 2012, this number fell to 68% in 2013. This could mean that we may have to meet a greater and greater percentage of our lead needs by re-importing lead scrap from the batteries we’ve exported to Mexico. With more stringent environmental regulations coming online in 2017 that will make it even more expensive to run secondary lead smelters in the US, it’s likely that several of the remaining lead recyclers in the United States may close, further increasing exports to Mexico.
Trash trade is extremely interesting – be it across state lines, or international. Who gets to dump on who, and how much is it worth? At the US/Mexico border we so heavily monitor anything that may come in and ‘infect’ our country, yet are we paying any attention to the ways that we are literally poisoning others?