CIENEGA DE FLORES, Mexico -- When an American replaces the battery in a car, likely as not the old battery will be shipped to Mexico rather than trucked to a modern U.S. recycling plant.
U.S. recyclers have some of the world’s top technology for safely breaking apart batteries to smelt the lead for reuse. But U.S. recycling plants are closing down or standing idle.
Plants in Mexico are not.
Mexico has won a leg up for a reason: Its lead emissions standards are one-tenth as stringent as U.S. standards. Mexican factories can ignore strict U.S. regulations that cap harmful lead emissions onto factory floors and into the air.
The result has been an ever-increasing surge in the trade of used batteries across the border. One watchdog group estimated that in 2011, the dead batteries headed to Mexico would have filled 17,952 tractor-trailers. And the trade keeps growing, the result of a stark regulatory gap that has left Mexico at risk of becoming a “pollution haven,” according to a Montreal-based commission that investigates environmental issues under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the economic accord between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Most American consumers are accustomed to turning in their spent car batteries when buying new ones, pleased to take part in a successful recycling program but unaware of how it takes place.
“There’s a good chance that your battery will be recycled at a plant with far inferior pollution controls than in the U.S.,” said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of a San Francisco-based advocacy group Occupational Knowledge International.
Canada’s standards are also lower than in the United States, but not nearly as lax as those of Mexico.
“Raising the bar is what it’s all about,” said Irasema Coronado, the executive director of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the trilateral NAFTA board, adding that she hopes the three nations “are able to harmonize how they are going to deal with these batteries.”
“I do reiterate that all of us who own a car in North America own this problem,” she said.
Lead acid batteries are an ever-present – if partially hidden – fact of modern life. The rechargeable batteries not only help drivers start cars, trucks and golf carts, they have many other uses. Tens of thousands of U.S. cellular phone towers and computer server farms maintain banks of lead acid batteries for backup power in the event of an emergency. Even submarines use the batteries.
Once their useful life ends, the spent batteries are considered hazardous waste and must be recycled. The lead inside can be recycled indefinitely.
Scientists now say that exposure to lead – even in minute quantities – can lead to cardiovascular disease, kidney damage and neurological disorders. Ten months ago, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that “there is no safe level of lead.”
The NAFTA environmental cooperation commission issued a draft report in November citing a dramatic increase in exports of spent lead-acid batteries, or SLABS, to Mexico over the past decade.
“According to our estimates, between 2004 and 2011, the U.S. exports of SLABs to Mexico increased by anywhere from 449 percent to 525 percent,” Coronado said.
It’s not just environmentalists worried about the issue. U.S. smelters and recycling firms that don’t have operations in Mexico also are demanding that the environmental bar be raised for companies in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada.