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Recycling Batteries Locally Means Outsourcing Pollution Globally
By Holly Testa, Director, Shareowner Engagement

Lead acid batteries must be recycled as hazardous waste rather than sent to landfills in the United States. This is a good thing, given well documented health effects of lead. High level exposure can cause seizures, coma, cardiovascular, and neurological disorders. And while there may be no obvious symptoms, low levels of lead in the blood stream cause reduced IQ, behavioral problems, and a host of other serious long-term issues in children. In fact, the CDC recently stated that there is no safe level of lead.

Recycling requirements keep our batteries out of landfills, but what actually happens next? In many cases, our lead pollution is exported across the border to Mexico.

Due to stringent standards implemented by the EPA in 2008, recyclers in the U.S. have invested in superior technology for processing batteries to smelt the lead, making recycling here safer, but more expensive. As a result, Mexico, whose regulatory standards and enforcement are extremely weak, has become a lower-cost option. Facilities south of the border provide cheap recycling, but Mexican workers and communities pay a high price of dangerous lead exposure.

The NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) recently issued a disturbing draft report that indicates U.S. exports of spent batteries to Mexico increased at least 449% between 2004 and 2011. The report cited compliance issues in meeting the tracking requirements of cross-border trade of this hazardous material and rampant black marketeering driven by escalating demand for lead. The CEC investigation was initiated in part due to an article in The New York Times that cited, among other findings, that soil in a school playground near a Mexican recycling plant had lead levels five times those allowed in the United States.

Johnson Controls, the largest U.S. battery manufacturer and recycler, processes nearly three quarters of “legal" spent batteries sent to Mexico for recycling. Their operations illustrate the difference a border can make. OK International indicates that a Johnson Controls plant in Cienega de Flores, Mexico emitted more than six metric tons of lead into the air in 2010, 33 times the level of emissions expected for a plant it recently opened in Florence, South Carolina.

Industries that power the information economy are “recycling” an ever increasing flood of batteries. A campaign led by Investors Environmental Health Network (IEHN) has been kicked off with a letter to data center operators and telecom companies asking for details on their battery procurement and recycling policies. First Affirmative has co-filed shareholder resolutions at Verizon and AT&T. Discussions with Verizon lead to a withdrawal of that resolution. AT&T challenged their resolution on this issue at the SEC but it was denied and will go to a vote of shareowners.

Posted: April 4, 2013