The toxic business of ‘recycling’ China’s electric car batteries leads to illegal dumping, pollution and poisoned water


by Laurie Chen
Authorities in eastern China are turning to the courts to raise the millions of yuan needed to rehabilitate water and land polluted by dumping from an illegal lead-acid battery recycling plant.

State-run Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday that the city of Huaian in Jiangsu province would use “public interest litigation” to pay to remove the acid and heavy metals found to around the plant and a nearby river.

The plant was one of a legion around the country involved in the booming business of reprocessing batteries used in electric cars and scooters, forms of transport the central government has been keen to promote in its war on air pollution.

The plant operated between March 2016 and September last year, employing more than 30 people to smelt lead from 15,000 tonnes of used batteries. Investigators said the backers of the operation – four of whom were arrested – ploughed over 1.3 million yuan (US$187,000) into the scheme and made more than 10 million yuan (US$1.44 million) while it was up and running.

When the plant was first discovered, investigators could only stay at the scene for 20 minutes at a time because the noxious fumes were so strong, the report said.

Lead smelting can produce toxic fumes that damage the nervous system and bones.

Researchers at Nanjing University estimated it would take at least 20 million yuan (US$2.88 million) to fix the environmental damage from the plant.

In addition to 250 million electric scooters, China has around 3 million electric cars, most of which will need to have their batteries replaced within the next decade.

China is already the world’s biggest market for electric vehicles (EVs) and aims to produce 2 million annually by 2020, raising demand for the lead batteries that power them.

As lead prices continue to rise, more illegal battery recycling enterprises are emerging throughout the country, according to experts.

The report quoted industry insiders as saying that at least 60 per cent of used lead-acid batteries in China are processed illegally.

“China is entering a peak period for recycling batteries. In theory, more than 6 million tonnes of used lead-acid batteries is scrapped per year,” Ma Yonggang, deputy chairman of the lead and zinc branch of the China non-ferrous Metals Industry Association, was quoted as saying.

“The huge profit margin is the main factor behind the illegal recycling, dismantling and smelting of used lead-acid batteries.”

Internet court records show that more than 140 illegal lead processing plants have been shut down since 2014, mainly in China’s northern and eastern industrial provinces.

Ma said the authorities should deploy more inspectors and tighten regulations for the storage, recycling and transport of used lead-acid batteries.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced in July that it would launch a pilot scheme for recycling used EV batteries in 17 cities and regions.

Under the regulations, Chinese EV firms will be responsible for the disposal of used batteries, many of which come from domestic battery suppliers such as CATL and BYD, which also makes EVs.

Richard Brubaker, founder of China environmental consultancy Collective Responsibility, said the EV battery waste problem was not realised until a couple of years ago.

“However this all changed as the first wave of battery retirements came,” Brubaker said.

“Since then, there has been swift action to establish an ecosystem of formal recyclers that can take these batteries, efficiently and safely recycle them, and redeploy the materials.

“Short term, it would be very difficult to remove the participation of informal actors given the economic incentives that exist.”

EV manufacturers Tesla, Nio, Kandi, Changjiang EV, BYD and Zhidou did not immediately respond to requests for comment. courtesy