A deadly business: Lead recycling in Africa

More than 800,000 tonnes of lead from old batteries arises in African countries every year. Most of it comes from discarded starter batteries from cars, lorries and motorbikes in use locally. The lead from the used batteries is extracted in part by small backyard businesses, but increasingly at larger facilities. In both cases the work is mostly carried out using rudimentary technology and without regard to basic health and safety requirements, and thus leads to serious and in some cases life-threatening lead poisoning among the workers and nearby residents, including children. Often neither the people affected nor the public in general are aware of the severity of the risks.

The donation-funded Lead Recycling Africa Project

In late 2014 the Oeko-Institut launched the Lead Recycling Africa Project, supported by numerous private donations. The aim of the collaboration with partner organisations in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania was to raise awareness of the issue of lead recycling in those and other countries and to identify sustainable ways of recycling lead batteries.

Most of the donated funds were transferred directly to environmental organisations on the ground to enable them to undertake the necessary research, analyses and public relations work. The partners in the countries were Pesticide Action Nexus Association Ethiopia (PAN-Ethiopia); Research and Education Centre for Development (CREPD), Cameroon; AGENDA for Environment and Responsible Development, Tanzania; and the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), Kenya. The researchers at the Oeko-Institut provided support for the local experts from a conceptual perspective and undertook preliminary background research.

Somewhat alarming – the main findings of the project

In the course of the project the African environmental groups in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania and the Oeko-Institut uncovered some crucial – and somewhat alarming – facts:

  • In all the countries there are lead smelters that recycle vehicle batteries on a large scale, but in most of the plants almost no precautions are taken to avoid lead emissions or to protect employees and nearby residents. Moreover, in many places vehicle batteries are recycled by small backyard businesses. Another particular problem is that in some regions such as Cameroon some of the lead is used to manufacture cooking pots. This means large sections of the population are unnecessarily exposed to this poisonous heavy metal in their day-to-day lives.
  • In Ethiopia scrap vehicle batteries are recycled mainly by small businesses that often try to repair them. Here, too, most of the workers have no knowledge of the health risks posed by lead, and so are not worried by working with lead dust, steam and waste. Owing to the considerable economic growth in the country the number of vehicles – and correspondingly the volume of used batteries – is rising rapidly, with the result that an imminent worsening of the problem is to be expected.
  • In Kenya research by the partner organisation into lead pollution even before the project launch has led to the withdrawal of one lead smelter’s licence. The project also helped the environmental group to gather further information about other recycling companies in Kenya and to draw up standards for the proper disposal of scrap batteries.
  • Documentary research has revealed systematic lead poisoning from lead recycling in other African countries as well, often with fatal consequences. There is particularly reliable evidence of three such cases – one each in Senegal, Ghana and Kenya.

The key demand: To enforce standards for health and the environment

Unsafe lead recycling is not only a problem in many countries south of the Sahara. Cases of lead poisoning have also been reported in countries such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. That is why the international team’s key demand to the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), held at the end of May 2016, was that governments and regulatory authorities should implement stringent standards for recycling lead batteries without harming human health or the environment. These need not be developed separately for each country, but instead should be applied globally.

The project also emphasises that there are few local markets for lead in Africa, so that the raw lead recovered from batteries is exported – including to Europe. That is why the Oeko-Institut is demanding that the bulk purchasers of lead – the European automotive industry, for example – should take greater responsibility for their supply chain. Until now this has often only happened via guidelines to the first supplier, whilst the beginning of the chain is largely obscured. In the view of the Oeko-Institut European industry should set significantly stricter standards in this regard.