Ninety-nine percent of used lead-based automotive batteries in the EU available for collection are recycled, making them one of the most recycled consumer products, according to a new report by consultancy IHS. The study was commissioned by EUROBAT, representing Europe’s automotive battery industry; the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA); the automobile manufacturers’ associations of Japan (JAMA) and South Korea (KAMA); and the International Lead Association (ILA).
The study, The Availability of Automotive Lead-Based Batteries for Recycling in the EU, is part of a series of studies that have been submitted by the project group to the recent consultation launched by the EU Commission on whether to continue the current exemption for lead-based batteries within the EU End of Life Vehicle (ELV) Directive’s wider ban on lead in light-duty vehicles.
The high recycling rate achieved means that the existing market for automotive lead-based batteries in the EU can be predominantly met with recycled lead in a closed loop system with low demand for primary lead reserves from mining.
The study explains that even without the need to recycle for resource conservation and environmental protection reasons, there is a significant economic incentive that acts as a driver to collect and recycle used automotive lead-based batteries. Recycling lead is relatively simple and cost effective and, in most of the current applications where lead is used, it is possible to recover it for further use over and over again-- in lead batteries, or other products—without any loss in quality.
Although the report shows that 99% of used automotive lead batteries available for collection are recycled it highlights that the remaining 1% represents the statistical error of the approach and/or movement of stored batteries and batteries with longer lifetimes than estimated in this study rather than any batteries being landfilled or incinerated.
In related projects, this joint industry group has also evaluated battery technologies used for automotive applications, the resource availability of materials used in batteries and conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) of batteries used in passenger cars.
Recycling. In the EU, used automotive lead-based batteries are typically returned to the point of sale or they are returned to recycling businesses or metal dealerships. In all cases they are then sent on to collection points.
The batteries are picked up at collection points by specialized companies which transport and deliver the batteries to secondary smelting plants operating under strict environmental regulations. Once the lead-based batteries arrive at a smelter for recycling, in general the battery is broken down into component parts. More than 93% of a lead-based battery is available for recycling. The only component of the battery that cannot be recycled is the separators (these represent just 2% to 7% of the battery).
The components that can be recycled and re-used are:
The lead components (approximately 60% of the weight) are smelted and refined to be used to make new batteries.
The battery casing, which is made of plastic (approximately 7% of the weight), is usually separated before the lead is recycled, depending on the method used, and is then reprocessed and re-used for batteries or for other products in the automobile industry, for example in bumpers, wheel arches and other parts.
The spent electrolyte (diluted sulfuric acid, approximately 30% of the weight) is treated in a variety of ways. In some processes the spent electrolyte is separated and filtered to make it suitable for regenerating fresh acid for a variety of applications. Other processes convert the spent electrolyte into calcium sulphate (gypsum) or sodium sulphate (soda), which can be used for various applications such as building products or detergents. Some processes neutralise the spent electrolyte and then dispose of it.
As all lead-based batteries have the same basic chemistry, all types of lead battery can be processed easily by lead smelters. This is not the case with other automotive battery technologies which are used for hybrid and electric vehicles.