Continued from Part One.
It can’t be said Mexico as a whole greatly benefits from this lead recycling trade. The environmental impact is profound if unquantifiable. Widespread reports cite soil samples in childrens’ play areas; food handling areas such as markets and homes adjacent to plants far exceed even Mexican standards, nevermind the limits set down in the US.
In exactly the same way as Chinese firms caused widespread poisoning and created an environmental legacy that will cause problems for generations to come, Mexico is doing the same — but in Mexico, blood sampling data is even less widespread than in China, so the health crisis is going largely unreported. The US has little interest and no way to influence the situation in China, but Mexico is a different matter.
The US could ban exports of batteries for recycling, but that would be an extreme step. It’s better that replacement and OEM battery sellers in the US enforce better supplier due diligence, much as we saw in the last decade among the textiles industry trying to stamp out child labor in Asian sweat shops. Wal-Mart, which sells a huge share of the nation’s auto batteries and prides itself on its environmental standards, could both protect American jobs and save Mexican lives if it rigorously enforced standards throughout its own supply chain.
Is there a role for government? Yes, certainly, a significant proportion of the batteries exported are done so illegally, going to unlicensed recyclers operating completely outside the law. The US has a sophisticated and well-trained border agency, but their focus is almost entirely on imports; greater control of exports, the haulage firms, and agents would help, and running checks on final delivery only to licensed recyclers would encourage less illegal operators.
The Mexican authorities should manage this industry themselves, but with their focus on drugs and crime, recycling is probably low on their list of priorities. A concerted effort is required by all elements of the battery recycling industry, but maybe a legal requirement that batteries sold in the US adhere to EPA standards would encourage manufacturers to work harder at managing their suppliers or setting standards in their own Mexican plants.
Of course, what this would not tackle is the re-export of lead to China. The amount of lead shipped from Mexico to China has nearly tripled in three years to an estimated 150 million tons in 2011, according to government trade statistics. Mexico’s production of lead from mining has increased only minimally since 2007; most of this growth is due to American batteries recycled in Mexico at huge environmental expense and shipped to China to the detriment of US domestic recyclers and jobs.