COUNTERING THE DANGERS OF ONE OF THE MOST RECYCLED MATERIALS IN THE WORLD

Forbes Africa
Published 7 months ago
Old leaking batteries

By Tiana Cline

Lead poisoning is an issue in Africa where lead-acid batteries reign supreme, powering cars and generators, providing solar power storage, and even backup for cell towers during rolling blackouts. But here’s How one company is transforming resources to power a more connected, sustainable world.

African children have died from lead poisoning. In countries like Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania, blood lead levels is not only unusually high – they’re increasing, according to a report in the Lancet Planetary Health journal. Exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin, is known to affect the brain resulting in disability (if not death). The World Health Organization states that children are more at risk because high lead exposure damages the brain before it has had a chance to fully develop so one has to ask: where is all this lead coming from?

While certain types of paint contain high levels of lead, America banned the use of these residentially in 1978. In South Africa, however, rules around lead paint were only enforced
in 2010 and from October this year, lead paint will be officially classified as a hazardous substance. But paint isn’t the biggest problem – a growing danger is the informal recycling of lead acid batteries. Even though lithium-ion batteries are a better battery (technologically-speaking), lead acid batteries reign supreme across Africa, powering cars and generators, providing solar power storage, and even backup for cell towers during rolling blackouts.

“Batteries are everywhere,” says Jamie Lee, Ecobat’s Chief Information Officer. “You don’t think about it until you think about recycling. In the transportation and energy sector, 19 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from road transportation. If batteries could be recycled better, it would mean less transport and you’re actually making an impact.”

When lead acid batteries aren’t recycled properly, acid and lead dust enters the soil. The process emits toxic fumes that permeate the air with poison and the workers return home with hazardous dust on their clothing.

“In addition to this, there are certain countries that use child labor to break open batteries and get those materials out which are then sold to the open market,” adds Lee. “We need to configure our supply chain in a way that we can get that battery supply into our hands for recycling. Then when the materials are put out, they go back into the hands of the manufacturers to take over and the result is less mining.”

THE WORLD’S MOST EFFICIENT CIRCULAR ECONOMY

Lee says that while many people believe paper, plastic and glass are the most recycled materials globally, lithium-ion batteries come in second and lead sits at the top of the pyramid.

“The most recycled material worldwide is lead;130 million batteries come through the recycling process,” he adds. “There’s enough lead in the recycling process to not mine for new materials.”

But that’s only when lead-acid batteries are regenerated or refurbished safely – something Ecobat does around the world because lead poisoning isn’t simply an African issue. A new study out of UNICEF found that around 800 million children are exposed to lead annually and the numbers in South Asia are higher than anywhere else.

“We are in a unique position globally as the largest battery recycler. Ecobat’s true impact is its value – if we didn’t exist there would be landfills of batteries,” he says. Recycling batteries is complicated – there’s a chain of over five different work centers to open each battery up, draw chemistries out of it and melt it down before refining the materials and shipping them off. From a safety perspective, there also has to be specialized breathing apparatus in place to ensure the recycling plant meets regulatory standards.

A new study out of UNICEF found that around 800 million children are exposed to lead annually and the numbers in South Asia are higher than anywhere else.

As battery technology evolves, Ecobat also have had to adapt the way batteries are collected and stored as well as enhance their technical capabilities in the cloud.

“We are in the business of making batteries safe and sustainable which means we need to apply technology and safety. Batteries are not going away – they’re only going up in consumption,” says Lee, adding that the battery market size is expected to grow exponentially by 2030. “That means more and more batteries as well as different types of batteries – we’re chasing technology that’s evolving.”

Lithium-ion batteries, for example, contain 20 different chemistries. Every material inside a battery requires specialization that goes into Ecobat’s engineering in order to maximize sustainability.

“If we maximize our performance, the battery manufacturers can maximize theirs and lead batteries could last longer. If you’re lengthening the cycle, by effectively bringing the product back to recycling, you’re almost completely circular and that’s an exciting place to get to.”

Ecobat have slowly been buying out recycling and manufacturing businesses across Europe, the United Kingdom, America and Africa. So far, they’ve consolidated 2,730 companies under one brand using SAP sustainable intelligence to help them scale their growth.

“We need to reclaim and reuse materials like lead rather than mine more,” says Lee. “Even renewable energies rely on lead acid batteries for backup. Electronic vehicles have lead acid batteries because if their security or intelligence systems go down, you need to transition seamlessly.”

Many African countries today still lack adequate recycling facilities and these informal, lead acid battery processing sites continue to put the health of millions of people at risk. To create an ecological impact, Lee believes that the conversation shouldn’t start with materials like plastic, aluminium and glass.

“That’s all low on the list because we see it being collected – even if it isn’t necessarily being recycled correctly,” he adds. “But we need to get recycling visible and help people understand where batteries of all kinds should not (and cannot) go. We do not want them in landfills – we need batteries to be a key consideration in the recycling process so we can make use of those materials.”