Which items in the waste stream are the most commonly recycled? Ten percent of plastic, 28 percent of glass, 49 percent of aluminum cans and 55 percent of paper is recycled. But the recycling award for the product with the highest recycling rate goes to … the car battery, with a recycling rate of 98 to 99 percent.

Lead-acid batteries are widely used across the globe in cars, trucks, boats, trains and recreational vehicles, and for emergency power in air traffic control towers, hospitals and railroad crossings. An estimated 6 million tons of lead is consumed each year globally, with three-quarters going into the manufacturing of lead-acid batteries. Once the lead plates within these rechargeable batteries deteriorate, the battery can no longer adequately store energy and is considered hazardous waste.

The recycling process includes breaking down the battery into numerous little pieces. The plastic is then extruded, and the liquid is siphoned off. The lead is smeltered and turned into ingots, a mass of metal.

A Recycling Success Story

Ninety-eight percent of the actual battery is recycled. In fact, the typical new lead-acid battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic, according to Battery Council International.

What makes car batteries a recycling success story? Here are some of the factors:

  • Legislation: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Battery Act helps promote high recovery rates
  • Consumer incentives: Many auto retailers charge a deposit to encourage car battery recycling; AutoZone even offers a $10 gift card for recycling a spent car battery
  • Economics: There are roughly 20 pounds of lead contained in each battery, which makes it worthwhile to salvage
  • Steady supply: With more than 1 billion vehicles on the road across the globe, there’s a constant stream of batteries in need of recycling

Recovering lead from batteries is relatively easy and requires less energy than obtaining it from virgin sources. High recycling rates for lead-acid batteries reduces the need to mine new lead and keeps batteries from being dumped.

The Less-Impressive Side of Car Battery Recycling

Recycled lead is a valuable commodity, creating a lucrative business opportunity throughout the world. However, it’s not a simple process, and it needs to be done properly to avoid environmental and health issues. With the rise in demand for automobiles across the world, it is important to create a safe recycling infrastructure.

Lead-acid batteries from many developed countries are commonly shipped to the developing world for recycling. Some experts estimate that one in five lead-acid batteries from the U.S. are recycled in Mexico, where many are not safely handled. Sadly, lead poisoning from improperly recycled car batteries has affected more than 12 million people, according to the Blacksmith Institute.

As the name implies, lead-acid car batteries contain a lot of highly toxic lead that can cause serious health problems, especially in young children. When not properly disposed of, these batteries can contaminate the groundwater, streams, lakes, air and soil. Lead compounds in the soil can turn to dust and become airborne, causing people nearby to inhale and ingest the lead. Excessive exposure can damage the brain and kidneys, plus cause hearing loss, mental handicaps and birth defects.

Car batteries are sometimes recycled on an informal basis in rudimentary facilities or even in homes, without proper precautions and awareness of the associated public health risks. This is a growing problem in many poor nations in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, where batteries are sometimes opened with axes and hammers and lead is melted in unsafe conditions. In fact, the “World’s Worst Pollution Problems,” a report by Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland, lists lead-acid battery recycling as one of the top 10 of the world’s worst pollution problems in low- and middle-income countries.

Although many countries have banned lead additives in paint and gasoline, the battery industry still widely uses lead. Recycling laws in developed countries that are aimed at protecting human health are causing many nations to export hazardous battery waste to developing countries without ample infrastructure and training for safe recycling practices.

The percentage of car batteries recycled is truly impressive, and widespread car battery recycling certainly has a positive impact on resources recovery. Now, for lead-acid batteries to truly be considered a success story, we need to develop a higher global standard for car battery recycling practices.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
Recycler Builds Electric Vehicle Out of Discards
What Happens to Your Car at the End of Its Life Cycle?
How to Recycle Car Batteries

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.