Regulatory pressure moves battery recycling south of the border

posted at 2:01 pm on March 25, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Among the many problems with the headlong rush to subsidize the entire electric-car distribution channel is the environmental impact of the battery life cycle.  Electric vehicles require large battery arrays to have any kind of practical range, and the process of manufacturing batteries requires rare-earth elements that require extensive mining — and have to be imported to the US, primarily from China and South America, which negates the effect of transitioning from dependence on foreign oil.  China reminded everyone of that reality almost two years ago, in fact.  Plus, the need to build massive amounts of batteries will create even more environmental hazards, as battery manufacturing is hardly the cleanest of industries.

What happens when those batteries get exhausted?  Supporters of electric-vehicle subsidies claim that most of the material can be recycled to reduce the impact on the environment and the need to keep mining for the elements required.  However, that opens up yet another channel of foreign dependence, as McClatchy reports today. The EPA has tightened regulations on disposal in the battery-recycling process, and so American firms are moving those jobs outside of the US:

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 10 times less stringent than 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.

Many of the same disposal problems can be found in the manufacture of solar panels, as we have discovered in the collapse of Solyndra and other manufacturers. There are two key differences between the two, however.  First, solar panels actually generate the electricity, although they also require batteries if storage is required; batteries only store power generated by other means.  Second, the shift from gasoline to electricity will require a commensurate increase in power generation for all of these batteries, and solar and wind can’t even come close to meeting that increase in demand.  The power will have to come from oil, coal, and natural gas, which means we’re not only not decreasing arguable environmental damage, we’re actually making it worse — all while forcing the US to become even more dependent on foreign resources for our energy use.

This project from the Obama administration has been an utter failure from its inception. Congress needs to cut off the flow of government funds to a program that will make us weaker, more dependent, and create even more joblessness than now.

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Smart Power!

agmartin on March 25, 2013 at 2:06 PM

Congress needs to cut off the flow of government funds to a program that will make us weaker, more dependent, and create even more joblessness than now.

So in other words, Congress will only increase the panned funding to 2.5% as opposed to the original 5%.

Gatsu on March 25, 2013 at 2:07 PM

You think the Mexicans are keeping close tabs on that industry, or do 75% of the toxic chemicals end up being scattered into the ground and water through lax controls.

Way to go, ecofreaks, but as long as your own backyard is nice and green no big deal for Mother Gaia, right?

Bishop on March 25, 2013 at 2:08 PM

I guess Odumazz really did have a self deportation plan. Who knew?

msupertas on March 25, 2013 at 2:09 PM

You would think that the rank and file democrat voter elected democrats to specifically move jobs outside the borders of the USA.

tom daschle concerned on March 25, 2013 at 2:10 PM

Cartels will be controlling and killing over it in 3…2…1…

profitsbeard on March 25, 2013 at 2:14 PM

Mexico has won a leg up for a reason: Its lead emissions standards are 10 times less stringent than U.S. standards. Mexican factories can ignore strict U.S. regulations that cap harmful lead emissions onto factory floors and into the air.

I could name a few federal officials in Washington D.C. that should be subjected to harmful lead emission. Though, from their habits and attitudes, they’d probably require silver.

Archivarix on March 25, 2013 at 2:16 PM

…. Because libe care about brown people or something…

Midas on March 25, 2013 at 2:16 PM

Please stop conflating lead-acid batteries with the lithium-ion batteries that electric cars use. The differences are twofold:

1.) The lead in lead-acid batteries breaks down to form lead oxide, which is tremendously toxic. In a lithium-ion battery, the lithium is just a catalyst and is chemically unaffected by the use. When the battery breaks down (mostly because the anodes get old and crumble), the lithium is easily taken back out of the suspension in a simple and cheap process. It doesn’t create the environmental disaster that lead reclamation does.

2.) Lithium is much, much more valuable than lead, not to mention more rare. So the economics of reclaiming lithium are nothing like the economics of reclaiming lead.

I am not in favor of the electric-car boondoggle any more than anyone else here, but using arguments based on lead-acid batteries is disingenuous and opens you up to ridicule from the eco-freaks. Lithium-ion recycling businesses are doing very well with all the iPad, iPhone, and computer batteries to recycle. The issue of lead-acid battery recycling has been around for a long time and won’t go away anytime soon. If you pop the hood of a Nissan Leaf, you’ll see a good old lead-acid battery there to run the radio, air conditioner, and lights.

JoseQuinones on March 25, 2013 at 2:16 PM

Libs. Damn autocorrect.

Midas on March 25, 2013 at 2:17 PM

The libs have no problem with polluting Mexico. They just don’t want it in their back yards.

portlandon on March 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM

Summarizing above ^, the lead-acid recycling nightmare has little to do with electric cars and should be considered a separate incidence of loony leftism ruining yet another American industry. That’s all.

JoseQuinones on March 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM

solar panels actually generate the electricity

A common misconception. Solar panels are net energy drains, per this source.

In short, it takes a LOT of energy to build a solar panel; more than you’re ever likely to get out of the panel before it wears out. And they do wear out, in terms of steadily degraded performance over time.

ZenDraken on March 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM

Ed,
The battery recycling in question is the lead acid battery. There have long been tight restriction on storage and transition of old lead acid batteries and a number of the actual recycling plants are now superfund sites due ground contamination.

This is not the same as other types of batteries such as lithium ion batteries.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:19 PM

JoseQuinones on March 25, 2013 at 2:16 PM

BINGO

Ed is not technologically literate enough (and neither are any of the authors nor 90+% of the posters on this website).

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:22 PM

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:22 PM

You should probably actually read Eds article.

smoothsailing on March 25, 2013 at 2:26 PM

The power will have to come from oil, coal, and natural gas, which means we’re not only not decreasing arguable environmental damage, we’re actually making it worse — all while forcing the US to become even more dependent on foreign resources for our energy use.

Can’t we just use ethanol and bio-deisel? /

iurockhead on March 25, 2013 at 2:26 PM

No, no puede…..

ted c on March 25, 2013 at 2:28 PM

The rat-eared devil’s Energy nominee says we need a carbon tax to double or triple energy costs so that stuff like batteries and solar panels are affordable by comparison. You would think that any measure of the term sustainable does not include outsourcing recycling operations.

Happy Nomad on March 25, 2013 at 2:29 PM

A common misconception. Solar panels are net energy drains, per this source.In short, it takes a LOT of energy to build a solar panel; more than you’re ever likely to get out of the panel before it wears out. And they do wear out, in terms of steadily degraded performance over time.

ZenDraken on March 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM

I suspect the same goes for those ridiculous windmills. Probably more energy required to create one than will ever be produced from one. Just like ethanol, which takes more energy to create than it contains. All just pointless feel-good measures, and somebody making money from them through subsidies.

iurockhead on March 25, 2013 at 2:30 PM

If or when Mexico gets to some decent level of general prosperity, the increasing wealth to its people will trigger a greater awareness of the environment and force a higher degree of regulation.

When you are poor, a steady job now counts for more than what happens to the environment (and perhaps to an extent to yourself) in the future. It is a tradeoff and the tradeoffs change as ones wealth changes.

Russ808 on March 25, 2013 at 2:31 PM

But President Focused-like-a-laser-on-jobs is all about preventing eebil corporations from moving out of the U.S.

Right?

locomotivebreath1901 on March 25, 2013 at 2:31 PM

This project from the Obama administration has been an utter failure from its inception. Congress needs to cut off the flow of government funds to a program that will make us weaker, more dependent, and create even more joblessness than now.

Making us weaker is a feature, not a bug, of this administration.

Bitter Clinger on March 25, 2013 at 2:33 PM

Russ808 on March 25, 2013 at 2:31 PM hen you are poor, a steady job now counts for more than what happens to the environment (and perhaps to an extent to yourself) in the future. It is a tradeoff and the tradeoffs change as ones wealth changes.

Exactly. The same is true of regulation in terms of job regulations, financial regulations, and other things. The trouble is, so often the pendulum swings WAY too far the other way and turns into full-blown socialism and economic decline.

JoseQuinones on March 25, 2013 at 2:36 PM

You should probably actually read Eds article.

smoothsailing on March 25, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Don’t be ridiculous.

katy the mean old lady on March 25, 2013 at 2:41 PM

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:22 PM

Go back to the oil drum you Fking nitwit.

tom daschle concerned on March 25, 2013 at 2:50 PM

tom daschle concerned on March 25, 2013 at 2:50 PM

dude have been involved in the scrap and associated businesses for decades.

Got back to healthcare, nitwit.

BTW, Oil Drum is a leftist peak oil whacko website.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:54 PM

This is old news around here (DFW area). Exide has had a battery recycling plant in Frisco since 1964, and now that the tiny town has become a bustling exurb of over 120,000 (the next Plano), the neighbors started screaming for it to be shut down. The closing happened at the end of November, and 120 people, some of whom had been there 30+ years, lost their jobs. The plant is currently being dismantled under EPA and TCEQ guidance, and the jobs are going to Mexico. I see on Exide’s site that they’re closing a recycling site in Reading, Pa. at the end of this month. Their other US sites are Baton Rouge, La, Canon Hollow, Mo., Muncie, Ind., and Vernon, Ca.

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 2:56 PM

It’s funny that RSR is mentioned in the article – they operated a smelter in West Dallas for decades, which resulted a multi-million dollar cleanup including removal of contaminated soil from homes nearby.

Maybe we can just shoot the batteries into space, or have the Martians recycle them. Wait…

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 3:02 PM

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 2:56 PM

The Exide location in Baton Rouge closed several years ago. The issue is more about ground contamination with lead.
Sanders Lead in Troy AL seems to be doing fine. They are the largest recycler of lead acid batteries (thus largest recycler of both lead and plastic), but do not make batteries as Exide does.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:13 PM

oba-mao’s jobs program coming to fruition. Move all jobs out of the country, so we are all dependent on him.

ultracon on March 25, 2013 at 3:19 PM

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 2:56 PM

Johnson Controls opened a brand new lead acid battery recycling plant in SC last year. Perhaps their two plants in Mexico take advantage of freight rates from CA rather than cross country hauling.

It would seem that being in a state with good permitting regs the problem doesn’t exist, and TX has the most stringent in the nation tied with CA for air emissions.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:22 PM

It would seem that being in a state with good permitting regs the problem doesn’t exist, and TX has the most stringent in the nation tied with CA for air emissions.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:22 PM

You’d never know it, the way Dear Liar’s EPA has been treating us.

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 3:28 PM

The Exide location in Baton Rouge closed several years ago. The issue is more about ground contamination with lead.
Sanders Lead in Troy AL seems to be doing fine. They are the largest recycler of lead acid batteries (thus largest recycler of both lead and plastic), but do not make batteries as Exide does.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:13 PM

Exide needs to update their Web site – they still show (today) Baton Rouge being one of their recycling locations.

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 3:29 PM

The patients have taken over the sanitarium.

sadatoni on March 25, 2013 at 3:30 PM

Johnson Controls opened a brand new lead acid battery recycling plant in SC last year. Perhaps their two plants in Mexico take advantage of freight rates from CA rather than cross country hauling.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:22 PM

That wouldn’t surprise me, with what car batteries weigh – putting those on a truck, a rig could get to 80,000lbs in no time. I would think they could go to Mexico by train.

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 3:31 PM

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 3:28 PM

The TX advantage is the flex where a company can cut emissions in one area of a plant and add more production in other areas, with additional emissions. It was an Anne Richards deal with the Clinton’s EPA and Conservatives were quick to see where she was right.

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 3:48 PM

Free trade is as big a myth as Bigfoot. We practice protectionism with a twist. The twist is we protect the other nations jobs.

DFCtomm on March 25, 2013 at 4:04 PM

But….but….but….carbon-free unicorn farts will SAVE THE PLANET!

GarandFan on March 25, 2013 at 4:12 PM

Exide is in the process of closing their Frisco, TX recycling plant as well.

stvnscott on March 25, 2013 at 4:34 PM

Actually, it closed at the end of last November (see my post above), and it’s currently being dismantled (which should be done in May). The city of Frisco is going to buy the 180 acres it sits on, but I don’t know what plans they have for the land. The plant was there long before the neighbors were.

Ward Cleaver on March 25, 2013 at 4:42 PM

Kermit on March 25, 2013 at 2:22 PM

You should probably actually read Eds article.

smoothsailing on March 25, 2013 at 2:26 PM

But then what would he have to act smarmy and condescending about?

Solaratov on March 25, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Alt. Headline:

Obama- Batteries Not Included.

profitsbeard on March 25, 2013 at 7:23 PM

How are you going to charge the batteries? Plug it into what? Better start thinking of power plants to generate the electricity. Our current agenda is shutting down power plants.

mixplix on March 25, 2013 at 9:37 PM

How are you going to charge the batteries? Plug it into what? Better start thinking of power plants to generate the electricity. Our current agenda is shutting down power plants.

mixplix on March 25, 2013 at 9:37 PM

Your average low-information American voter can’t make that connection. They think plugging in an electric car is like recharging their cordless drill.

slickwillie2001 on March 25, 2013 at 10:54 PM