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OM in the News: Shipping Our Batteries to Mexico for Cheaper Recycling

December 10, 2011

When we discuss the 3R’s of Sustainability in Supplement 5 we emphasize how important it is to build sustainable production processes.  But the  lead article in The New York Times (Dec.9,2011) asks what really happens when our American car battery industry claims to have the highest recycling rate for any commodity–97% of the lead is recycled–and most states mandate that stores take back old batteries. It turns out that spent batteries we turn in are increasingly being sent to Mexico, where their lead is usually extracted by crude methods that are illegal in the US, exposing plant workers and local residents to dangerous levels of a toxic metal.

The rising flow of batteries is the result of strict new EPA standards, making domestic recycling more difficult and expensive. (The allowable lead levels have dropped by a staggering amount in the past 3 years and cost of compliance is about $20 million per plant). So about 20% of batteries (20 million) are being legally shipped to Mexico this year (up from 6% since the new EPA rules), with many more smuggled across covertly. “Along the border, where US vigilance focuses on drugs and illegal immigrants, there is little effort to staunch the flow”, writes the Times.

Whereas lead battery recyclers in the US now operate in sealed, highly mechanized plants outfitted with scrubbers, the vast majority of Mexican plants just break the batteries, releasing the lead as dust and emissions. Spent batteries house up to 40 lbs. of lead, which can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage, abdominal pain in adults, and serious neurological development in children. Lead pollution remains in the ground for decades. The EPA says it “does not inspect, monitor, or verify the Mexican facilities.” Adds a Dallas recycler: “We’re shipping hazardous waste to a neighbor ill-equipped to process it and we’re doing it legally, pretending it’s not a problem.”

Discussion questions:

1. Do your students view this as an ethical dilemma?

2. What other harmful products do we ship abroad for recycling, and why?

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