February 14, 2019: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment ordered the country’s lead battery producers to step up their used battery collection rate to 70% by 2025 in a document published on 22 January.
The Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Used Lead-Acid Battery Pollution, drawn up by the ministry and an unnamed ‘eight other authoritative departments’, says the rate should be up to 40% by 2020. The Shanghai Metals Market estimates the current rate to be no more than 30%.
As well as ordering producers to improve their recycling rate, the government will also crack down on illegal collection and disposal, a problem that has long plagued the country.
The MEE and Ministry of Transport announced a plan to set up a ULAB collection network by the end of 2020 — ‘to promote the development of a standard and orderly battery recycling system and control the pollution caused by used lead-acid batteries’, according to the SMM.
“Improperly dismantling and processing used lead-acid batteries would result in serious environmental pollution,” it quoted the official as saying.
In March 2017, the information agency S&P Global Platts reported China had more than doubled its output target for recycled lead to 2.5 million tonnes by 2020.
Farid Ahmed, Wood Mackenzie principal analyst, lead markets, said at the time the figure was realistic, but the problem was the lack of a formalized closed-loop system in the battery recycling arena.
Speaking to BESB this week, he said Wood Mackenzie’s current figures put the amount of recycled lead production in China at around two million tonnes, and the amount of primary production at around twice that.
“Modern Chinese primary smelting technology is capable of processing a high proportion of secondary feed (mostly scrap batteries) together with the normal primary feed (ie lead concentrates),” he said.
“This means that, particularly when concentrate supply has been as tight as it has been in the past couple of years, the primary producers have been very effective at acquiring secondary feed that would otherwise have gone to recyclers. This is so that they can produce more lead units to satisfy customer demand.”
Ahmed dismissed reports that claimed fewer than 70% of lead batteries were currently being collected and recycled.
“Nonsense — people there know far too well what the economic value if a scrap battery is. What is meant is that the proportion of batteries currently collected and recycled legitimately is below 70% of the total. Anyone that I speak to is convinced that very few batteries in China aren’t recycled.”
This could all be formalized under the MEE’s new action plan — it’s just a question of how.
“A study by the Beijing University of Technology a couple of years ago reckoned that about 40% of scrap lead batteries were collected legitimately and went to licensed secondary smelters, about 20% went to primary smelters, and the remaining 40% disappeared into a dark hole,” said Ahmed.
“Let’s see what this plan brings, like including some level of producer responsibility. Whether this will just be that they’re obliged to accept scrap returns, or that they can only sell a replacement battery in exchange for a scrapped one, or that they’re somehow mandated to ensure end-of-life collection and recycling — who knows.
“But judging by the increasing strictness of environmental clampdowns on lead mines, smelters and battery producers in the past few years, the requirements from these proposed new measures could be pretty tough.”