The local market for used lead acid batteries (ULAB) in Nigeria is worth over N85 billion but much of the activities of operators are informal and unregulated even though lead acid batteries constitute the most deadly toxic waste next to nuclear material.
Findings from a field research conducted by Recycling and Economic Initiative Development of Nigeria (REDDIN) show that every year, an estimated 110,300 tons of used lead acid batteries are generated in Nigeria from the transport sector with each ton sold at N340,000 which translates to N37.5 billion annually.
The cost of transportation of each ton is put at N11, 000 and at the rate of 110,300 tones, the estimated cost is put at N1.2 billion. The addition of batteries used by solar operators takes the total value of tonnage generated annually in Nigeria to 250,000 putting the value of the industry well over N85 billion.
The concern is that while this is a bourgeoning industry, Nigeria is yet to develop a distinct regulatory code for the activities of operators despite the toxic nature of waste generated.
“Used lead acid batteries are considered the second most toxic waste after nuclear waste. It is not something that countries play with at all and it is not something that Nigeria should play with,” said Terseer Ugbor, managing director/CEO of REDIN Recycling Industries, who conducted the research.
Ugbor said, “If we are going to mismanage other waste streams like plastic bottles and other packaging wastes, lead acids should not be mismanaged because of the harmful effects.”
Batteries fall into two basic groups: lead acid batteries and dry cell batteries. Lead acid batteries are often used to power automobiles, industrial equipment and alternative energy systems.
Dry cell batteries power radios, toys, cellular phones, watches, laptop computers, portable power tools, and other consumer goods.
However, lead-acid batteries contain sulphuric acid and large amounts of lead. The acid is extremely corrosive and is also a good carrier for soluble lead and lead particulate. Lead is a highly toxic metal that produces a range of adverse health effects particularly in young children, said the researchers.
Worse still, Nigeria is not maximising value from the used lead acid battery market because findings show that as much as 80 percent of the batteries are exported without passing through recycling.
BusinessDay gathered that exporters pay the Ministry of Environment a paltry N500 per tonne. The Nigerian Customs Service officials have no formal duties though exporters are said to make under the table payments of less than N2000 for a container.
Meanwhile the cost of a ton of scrap lead-acid batteries in the international market is about $2,500, usually from cars, which are recycled to make into new products.
Used acid batteries are mainly bought by two companies in Nigeria: Ibeto Group which has been producing batteries locally and exporting lead and Metal Recycling Industries Ltd that recycles batteries for the lead and converts to ingots for export.
“But the challenge is their facilities are always empty of batteries,” said Donald Ikenna Ofoegbu, program coordinator at Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Nigeria, a foundation that is advocating for proper management of used lead acid batteries.
Ofoegbu along with some officials from NESERA, and the ministry of environment carried out a site inspection of Ibeto plant recently and found that even though the company follows international best practice, it cannot get enough used battery and had to lay off a quarter of its staff to keep the business open. This is because artisanal lead acid miners have cornered the bulk of the batteries that are not exported.
In Apo market in Abuja and several auto workshops in Lagos, young men use cutlasses to hack open batteries in order to extract lead which is packaged for exports.
“Used batteries have a standardized way they should be collected, stored and transported even before recycling. The only positive part of it is that the batteries are being collected from the streets but the way they are being managed and transported doesn’t follow the right protocol and the way they are being recycled locally doesn’t follow any known environmental regulation or law or the international treaty, the BASEL convention that Nigeria is a signatory to,” said Ugbor.
According to the BASEL convention, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn when handling ULABs, and must be stacked in an upright orientation with all the vent and inspection caps firmly in place so that acid is not spilled.
It also recommend that ULABs should be stored, handled and transported in accordance with domestic hazardous waste, dangerous goods and workplace health and safety legislation. Batteries that are leaking electrolyte should be placed in a suitable plastic container.
“We know about the convention and the problems with ULABs, the agency is working to develop standards and regulations for it,” said an official from National Environmental Standards and regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), who didn’t want to be named because she has no authorisation to speak on the matter.
In the absence of a clear cut policy on ULABs, Nigeria has an Extended Producer Responsibility rule which requires a producer of hazardous material to be responsible for clean-up and care for the environment.
The trouble is, “The EPR Regulations in Nigeria have also been slow to take effect because of its underlying setup as a Corporate Social Responsibility rather than as a mandatory directive backed by legislation. A Producer responsibility for this sector is about making sure businesses that manufacture, import and sell Lead Acid Batteries are responsible for their end of life environmental impact,” said the researchers at REDDIN.