Business philosophy – Attended a UN Environment Programme meeting on battery waste recycling

In recent years, there has been significant interest in recycling various types of batteries, including lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries. However, this is more complex than many imagine due to restrictions on the cross-border transportation of batteries. The Basel Convention, administered by the United Nations, regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, including waste batteries. The establishment of the SIWG (Small Intersessional Working Group) aims to address specific issues related to the transboundary movement, management, and environmentally sound disposal of waste batteries. From March 10 to 12th this year, a group of government officials, industry experts, and industry associations convened in Geneva to develop guidelines, recommendations, and best practices for properly handling and disposing of waste batteries aimed at reducing environmental and health risks associated with improper management.


Many countries, including Australia, Japan, and others, have policies for exporting battery waste. In the United States, waste lead-acid batteries (SLABs) are considered solid and hazardous waste and are typically managed under special standards of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In Europe, on June 14, 2023, the European Parliament voted to update its Battery Directive to support circular production and provide valuable battery materials for Europe. With the implementation of relevant regulations, exporting black mass (a powder generate from the recycling of lithium battery) from Europe will end around 2025, as Europe cannot afford to lose these valuable resources.


It is estimated that one million people die from lead poisoning each year, and even low levels of lead exposure can lead to lifelong problems such as anemia, hypertension, immune toxicity, and reproductive toxicity. Lead leakage from waste lead-acid batteries is a source of pollution.


Governments worldwide support environmentally friendly recycling and utilization of batteries, but mainly on a local scale. Exporting metals and plastic materials for downstream production is only possible when waste batteries undergo environmentally friendly processing. Concerning black mass, some countries hope to retain it for use in recycled materials, while others classify it as hazardous waste.


Due to various challenges facing the metal and plastic recycling industry, many recyclers have begun to invest in battery recycling. However, the main concern is that local supplies may not meet demand, and there are many import restrictions, making achieving economies of scale a distant dream. Additionally, in developing countries, thousands of informal recyclers may not be able to handle recycling in an environmentally friendly manner, leading to valuable recyclable waste being discarded into the open environment, resulting in resource waste.


Global policies, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), need to be formulated to regulate battery recycling, increase recycling rates, and promote a circular economy.


Original by Dr. Steve Wong

March 28, 2024

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