Car battery recycling is one of the most most lucrative yet polluting industry in the world, but now with the emergence of new technologies and innovative start-ups in India, the process is turning out to be a win-win for both industry and the planet.
Recycling might sound like something individuals should do on their Sundays but it is in fact a huge part of industrial activity. We’ve all seen the footage of of tons and tons of toxics dumped into oceans or plumes of black smoke emerging from factories choking the arteries of big metropolitan cities, including the Indian capital - New Delhi.
A significant 34 per cent of all waste is generated by just 16 per cent of the world's population, largely from high-income countries, but more than one-third of this waste is recovered through recycling and composting. In India, Time of India reported last year that nearly 77 per cent of waste in India is disposed in open dumps, 18 per cent is composted and just 5 per cent is recycled.
Recycling industrial waste, though, is not always straightforward. Most often than not the recycling process produces toxic waste or effluents that in turn can cause serious environmental problems. Recycling used car batteries is one such process and has been identified as the world's most polluting industry.
Fortunately for India, a handful of start-ups are now trying to find a new way to recycle used car batteries, using water, chemicals and electricity to produce lead instead of the hazardous, high-heat smelting.
Recycling of lead batteries accounts for about two-thirds of the world's supply of refined lead, which is also used in cables, ammunition and paints. The metal currently trades at roughly $2,000 per tonne. This is one of the reasons why the hazards of lead rarely make news.
According to an article in Yale environment the automobile industry had almost purged lead from its environmental CV with the almost-total elimination in recent decades of lead additives in gasoline.
But now, those levels are rising again, says Richard Fuller, CEO of Pure Earth, a New York-based nonprofit, in large part because nobody thought about lead in automobile batteries, even though they start almost all of the 1.4 billion vehicles on the road today. We tend to think of recycling as an unalloyed good thing. But not the way it is done with lead in batteries.
Lead, one of the most ubiquitous and poisonous metals, is also among the most recycled, with more than 6 million tons collected for reuse each year. An estimated 85 percent of lead in use today goes into batteries, mostly for automobiles. And when the batteries run down, 99 percent of this lead is recycled to make new batteries.
Typically, traditional battery recycling units use an ultra-hot furnace at over 1,000 degrees Celsius to refine lead components. If the unit is unregulated, as many are in poorer nations where the sales of cars and car batteries are surging, toxic fumes often escape into the air and effluents seep into groundwater. And because car battery recycling is such a lucrative business, this has spawned several unofficial smelting businesses that carry out recycling with little to no regard for safety, precaution or regulation.
In India, this is slowly changing with start-ups taking up the baton to recycle responsibly, while also tapping into what is no doubt huge market. One of the first to bring a new recycling technology to market is ACE Green Recycling Inc, which has developed a room-temperature process that turns lead from scrap batteries into briquettes of 99.5 per cent purity and above, its CEO Nishchay Chadha told Reuters.
At its recycling plant in Ghaziabad, the firm then uses electric kettles to refine the briquettes into ingots which are then sold to battery manufacturers. Plastic and other components are recycled separately.
Worldwide, the start-ups so far form only a tiny fraction of the lead battery recycling industry, which is estimated to be a $17.5 billion per year business, counting for just the lead value. But they claim the new technologies produce next to no emissions compared to traditional smelting.
Analysts and experts said the new technologies are promising but it was too early to say if any of them was commercially viable on a large scale.
"I think it's a great step and if it's economically viable it's a terrific step," CEO Richard Fuller at environmental agency Pure Earth said.
Farid Ahmed, the principal lead analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said the new technologies had "the potential to be game-changers".
"But (they) need to reach that point where they can establish the validity of their processes when scaled up to industrial levels of output, plus that they can be competitive in production costs," he said.
"We use electricity, and our plant operates at room temperature, and that's why there's zero-emission of gases and effluents from our plant," Dhruvendra Kumar Tyagi, ACE Green's general manager, told Reuters about the firm's replacement of the traditional smelting furnace.
Luminous Power Technologies, owned by France's Schneider Electric and one of India's largest auto battery manufacturers, provides ACE Green with more than 200 tonnes per month of used batteries, which ACE said it turns into 120-130 tonnes of lead and sells back to the firm.
ACE Green has also signed an agreement with Altus Asia Group in Singapore to licence its technology to recycle 5,000 tonnes per year of used lead-acid batteries in the first half of 2022, with the potential to double that capacity in 2023, its Managing Director David Leong said.
The investment for this plant will be $5 million which Leong expects to raise via private equity and private partners. "(The technology) basically solves all the problems of running a traditional lead recycling smelter," said Leong, adding that the company plans to also set up plants in Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea using this technology.
ACE Green says it has inked licensing and joint-venture deals to recycle 90,000 tonnes per year of used lead-acid batteries with four commercial recyclers in 11 countries, which would produce a total of about 55,800 tonnes per year of lead. It is also planning a 12,000 tonnes per year used lead-acid batteries recycling plant in Australia which would produce 7,440 tonnes per year of lead.
All of that would be equivalent to 1 per cent of the world's recycled lead.