UN Assembly agrees resolution on lead battery recycling in Africa

A UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi meeting between December 4-6 made a resolution to combat backyard lead battery recycling in Africa.

The assembly, the UNEA3, came up with the ‘Resolution on eliminating exposure to lead paint and promoting environmentally sound management of waste lead-acid batteries’, which included measures to encourage member states to improve the sound management of waste lead-acid batteries.

Tobias Schleicher, an economist with the independent research and consultancy agency Oeko Insitut in Germany, told BESB that from his point of view the resolution was an “important success within the UN process on lead”.

He said: “Among others, the resolution encourages member states to continue their efforts for the environmentally sound management of waste lead acid batteries.”

The Oeko Institut’s Andreas Manhart, senior researcher, sustainable products and material flows, said the resolution was a much-needed signal.

“It will raise the awareness for unsound lead acid battery recycling — in particular in developing countries,” he told BESB. “We now hope that follow-up action will be tangible. It will not be enough to study ULAB volumes, but authorities will need to be trained and supported.

“We will also need some form of international minimum standard for ULAB recycling that can be used for licensing and inspection, and also avoid each country struggling with such challenges alone.

“UN resolutions have quite some influence in many developing countries: new resolutions often set the agenda for activities and processes in the ministries and administrations responsible for the environment. Moreover, UN resolutions also mean there is likely to be financing — either via international funds, or by bilateral support from other countries.”

The Oeko Institut has been part of a Lead Recycling Africa Project that focused on the four countries Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Cameroon, where it found a mixture of issues such as fatal lead poisoning in children, manual battery breaking, backyard lead smelters, the disposal of sulfuric acid directly into soil, and a pile-up of plastic battery cases leading to the cross contamination of lead into daily-use products.

In Cameroon, it found small firms were informally recycling lead then passing it on to the manufacturers of cookware that was then used all over the country in restaurants, homes and on open food stalls.

Lead poisoning when it did occur was rarely diagnosed correctly, the project found, but symptoms were attributed to other diseases.

The project found that in 2016, the total number of end-of-life ULABs was 1.23 million tonnes.

Also involved in the project were the NGOs Agenda Tanzania, the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), the Research and Education Centre for Development (CREPD) and PAN Ethiopia.

Patrick Schröder, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies based in the UK, told BESB: “There is strong momentum for solar PV mini grid development to being electricity to the rural poor without access.

“The issue of used lead-acid batteries, which are used in the automotive industry, and increasingly as storage, hasn’t received sufficient attention yet. They are being recycled, but in most cases by the informal sector, which operates in the same way as waste recyclers, without proper facilities, and a lack of protective gear without consideration for environment and health.

“There is some movement among regulators to get on top of this issue, but it will be difficult. I see a role for extended producer responsibility of the international battery manufacturers, as most batteries are imported and the recycled lead is exported back.”