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Lead Fraternity Keeps the Loop Closed

Features - Scrap Industry News, Nonferrous, Auto Shredding, Metallics

Environmental considerations have caused the small fraternity of lead battery recyclers to carefully account for the nation’s secondary lead supply.

Melissa Goodrich March 7, 2000
One might say that lead recyclers are much like a tight-knit fraternity, except, of course, without the keg parties and hazing. Recycling programs, such as exchange programs in place at many stores that sell automobile batteries, have created an almost closed-loop supply of lead for secondary smelters.

And these exchange programs make friend and foe out of companies accepting batteries for exchange and those seeking the materials for recycling. And much like a fraternity, while the members may be the best of friends, there is also competition between brothers.

Becoming a brother

By percentage, lead makes a claim as the most successfully recycled material in the United States. With a recycling rate of about 96%, it leads the way in percentage recycled, rising well above aluminum Used Beverage Cans (UBCs), which are often a more publicized material when it comes to recycling rates.

Automotive car and truck batteries (also known as lead-acid batteries) are the little known materials that seem to have tapped into the secret formula to achieving a high recycling rate.

Much of the key to this high recycling rate is the closed-loop process of recycling that has been put into place for lead-acid batteries. When purchasing a new set of tires for one’s car, a fee may be charged to dispose of the old tires. Similarly, with batteries, many times a fee is charged when the purchase of a new battery is not accompanied by the exchange of an old battery.

The process becomes a continual trading process, one in which you can’t buy a new car battery, for example, without exchanging an old one in return. "This is really one of the things that enhanced the recycling of batteries," says Carl Fischer, corporate manager/raw materials purchasing for RSR Corp., Dallas, Texas.

Much of the effort to implement this exchange policy program was from the Battery Council International, Chicago. There are two main channels used by lead smelters to obtain batteries—through some sort of coordination with battery manufacturers or through collection agencies set up with scrap dealers, Fischer says. The exchange process is really the key to achieving the 96 or 97% recycling rate, he says. "It’s phenomenal."

Lead-acid batteries represent the largest use for lead in the United States, says Greg McClain, general manager of SeaFab Metals, Casa Grande, Ariz. "Lead acid batteries represent about 85% of the lead consumed in the United States," he says, in mostly automotive and motorcycle batteries as well as emergency power batteries. And a large subset of emergency power is found within the telecommunications industry, such as the batteries that keep phones from going dead when there is a power outage.

The pledging process

There are several different types of lead battery recyclers. One would be the fully integrated smelter in which the battery is taken to the smelter, melted to make new lead, and then that lead is sent directly to another facility where another battery is made out of the material.

The other type is the independent battery recycler or smelter. "The whole fraternity competes with each other and other times does business with each other," Fischer says. "A couple of us are out there looking to buy batteries. Then there are other companies that have a closed loop arrangement—the shops collect the batteries and as the distributor collects the batteries [from the shops] they are sent back to the manufacturer."

This closed-loop process of lead-acid battery recycling makes supply and demand of lead almost a non-issue. The exchange program creates a continual supply of old batteries to be recycled and remade into new batteries, therefore fear of not having a sufficient supply of lead becomes almost nonexistent.

The battery market on the demand side, meanwhile, seems quite secure. Despite the hazards overexposure to lead can create, the element cannot be matched for its efficiency as an energy storage material that can operate in harsh climates. "Lead-acid batteries are usually more economical and have a high tolerance for abuse," an essay on the website of Hawker Energy Products Inc., Warrensburg, Mo., says of leads ability to remain viable.

Lead in the forms in which it is present in batteries (lead dioxide converting to lead sulfate) gives excellent corrosion resistance, offers significant energy storage capacity and has diffusion qualities that cannot be matched by other elements.

Batteries are by far the largest market for secondary lead, Fischer says. Two decades ago, about two-thirds of a battery was from primary lead and the remaining 1/3 from secondary lead. But in the late 1990s the percentages are practically reversed, with about 1/3 of the battery being composed of primary lead and the remaining 2/3 secondary lead. The quality of the battery is virtually the same, manufacturers claim.

Fischer says this change in the make-up of the batteries can be attributed to the increased emphasis on recycling. The number of primary companies smelting lead has also changed. Previously there had been several primary companies but as of 1999 there is one, he says. There is one main domestic U.S. producer of lead.

The number of secondary lead smelters has also diminished significantly. There were 44 secondary smelters operating in the U.S. in 1980, but just 23 by the end of that decade. Now, Fischer estimates the number of U.S. secondary lead smelters could be closer to 10. "That has been ratcheted down by attrition and because they couldn’t keep up with government policies," Fischer says.

KEEPING UP WITHTHE COMPETITION

While the recycling rate of lead acid batteries is very high, changing technology presents unique problems for lead recyclers.

"The technology for batteries has become increasingly sophisticated and it puts some unique pressure on the secondary smelters to be able to refine that recycled lead to a pure enough state to be used in batteries," McClain says.

"If you were to take a look at the changes in battery technology in the last four or five years, challenges exist to convert the material from those batteries into the batteries that are being made now," he comments. "Elements and alloys that are out of date have to be updated to comprise the new batteries being made now."

The Battery Council International (BCI) has proposed battery recycling legislation that includes banning disposal of lead acid batteries in landfills or municipal solid waste incinerators. The proposal calls for lead acid batteries to be disposed of to secondary smelters or to battery manufacturers, with a separate violation for each battery that is improperly disposed of. A fee would also be charged to those batteries that are sold and that are not accompanied by an exchange of another lead-acid battery. Also in the proposal is a definition of lead-acid battery, which is defined as a battery that consists of lead and sulfuric acid, is used as a power source, and is not intended as a power source for certain consumer products.

Currently, the BCI model of battery recycling legislation has been adopted by 42 states, although five of these states have incorporated only the model’s disposal ban of banning municipal solid waste disposal of lead batteries. Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico have not adopted a BCI model of battery disposal, although a bill is also pending in Massachusetts for the 1999-2000 session. Eight states have a $5 deposit in lieu of a battery trade-in and two more have a $10 trade-in fee. In an attempt to encourage the remaining states to adopt a model, the BCI continues to communicate with the state legislatures. RT

The author is the Assistant Editor of Recycling Today.

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