Used lead-acid batteries a bigger problem in Hong Kong than reported, says councillor

Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman says there are more batteries than available recycling capacity, and it is leading to illegal dumping and disposal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 5:14pm

Greater recycling capacity for the growing number of used lead-acid batteries in Hong Kong is urgently needed to stop illegal dumping and disposal, according to Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman.

The number of used lead-acid batteries is on the rise as they are the most common source of back-up power for data centres.

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Once their lifespan has been exhausted, licensed waste collectors are paid to take them to chemical waste landfills or a chemical waste treatment facility in Yuen Long industrial estate, where they can be prepared for export.

Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing told the Legislative Council last month that about 1,200 tonnes of used lead-acid batteries were collected and disposed of by licensed waste collectors in legal landfills or the chemical waste treatment facility.

About 700 tonnes were dumped in landfills, while the rest was prepared for export to a recycling facility in South Korea, according to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD).

Zimmerman, however, believes the real figure is much higher but was not recorded as, due to a lack of facilities, it was being illegally dumped or sold to illegal waste collectors, who then make a profit by selling valuable components.

A 2014 report by Dr James Wong Wing-ho of Allied Environmental Consultants estimated about 13,300 tonnes from vehicles and 9,897 tonnes from data centres were produced in Hong Kong.

The report estimated that by 2020, there would be 66,649 tonnes in the city.

The EPD dismissed the estimates as being “on the high side”.

But Zimmerman said official government figures only took into account what licensed collectors and processors handled.

“The government has this ridiculously small number; they only report – and can only report – what licensed collectors and processors show,” he said.

“Why is there a discrepancy? The waste handlers you have got to pay. And if you give them to an illegal exporter, you get money. It’s as simple as that. And it’s good money, the difference is significant.”

Used battery recycling involves decanting acid from the battery before the lead is removed for recycling. The plastic casing is crushed and used to manufacture new battery covers and cases. The components have value if they are sold overseas.

On February 26, 9,000 waste lead-acid batteries were seized by the EPD at an open storage ground in Yuen Long. The department said at the time “the case may involve illegal collection and storage of chemical waste ... for export trading”.

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Zimmerman said the seizure clearly showed Hong Kong did not have the capacity to deal with the true volume of used batteries and increased recycling capacity was desperately needed, as illegal waste collectors were wreaking havoc on the environment.

Zimmerman said illegal waste handlers decanted the acid into the ground before export, which could possibly leak into water sources such as streams and the ocean.

A facility to handle recycling is currently being constructed at the EcoPark in Tuen Mun. The centre operated by SSK Metal is expected to come online by the end of next year. Its licensed processing capacity per year is 41,600 tonnes of used batteries or 33,300 tonnes of lead extraction, whichever is lower.