Battery Recycling drives lead poisoning in Indonesia

Recycling of lead acid batteries is one of the major toxic problems plaguing Indonesia, along with much of the developing world, as a recent article at National Geographic highlights. Thousands of unlicensed and heavily polluting smelters are continuously emitting high concentrations of lead and other toxic substances into the air. Lead, a major component of vehicle batteries, has long been known to harm brains, with even low doses linked to learning and behavioral problems in children. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), lead exposure contributes to 600,000 new cases a year of intellectual disabilities in children. Health experts say there is no safe exposure level for lead and that even relatively low levels can cause serious, sometimes irreversible, damage to developing brains.

Speaking to the national Geographic, Tuti Hendrawati Mintarsih, director general of hazardous waste in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, acknowledges the problem but says authorities can’t close illegal smelters because too many people would lose jobs and the operators would move to new, hidden locations. This is a “social problem,” she says. “When we remind them not to operate the illegal smelter, we should help them find an alternative job.”

In a recent blog posted at Pure Earth, (formerly Blacksmith Institute), a New York-based nonprofit that aims to “… employ scientists, public health experts, and environmental engineers who would put boots on the ground and dirty their hands in some of the worst polluted places on the planet”, Angela Bernhardt, Executive Director of Communications describes in details the cycle of lead poisoning in Pesarean, Indonesia. Read carefully the following characteristic excerpt.

“Pak Pat (a villager), working outside his home, broke open the batteries, poured out the acid, smelted the lead into ingots and sold them to factories nearby. This was more profitable than making tin buckets and after some years of hard work, Pak Pat went from living in a very small dwelling his parents gave him, to buying 5 houses for his family members. Of course, Pak Pat did not know that lead was a dangerous toxic element, and this prosperity came at a very high cost. Pak Pat and his wife had 10 children. Three died as infants. Three sons are brain-damaged and are described as having down syndrome. One has never been able to speak. The oldest son does not have brain damage, but has respiratory problems so severe that he requires regular hospital visits. Pak Pat died at the age of 63.”

As a final comment, we all know that such practices are part of several global supply chains. I do hope that no one considers those practices as part of the Circular Economy discussion, but I am not sure. So, next time we will hear a famous CEO speaking about Circular Economy in a glamorous event, let’s wonder if the concept of Circular Economy can be implemented ignoring or violating human rights. Let’s ask where the lead comes from. Let’s remind everyone that a better resource management can be implemented by delivering more wealth and prosperity but it can also be achieved driving more inequality and leading to more impoverishment. Because this is a missing element of each and every official discussion about Circular Economy. But this will be the subject of one of my next blogs.

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