One of the world’s most ancient elements is a trailblazer for closed loop recycling.
Lead, the use of which is believed to date back to 4,000 BC, is one of the world’s most recycled products yet it is one that is rarely front of mind, particularly in the eyes of the general public.
Recycled lead literally keeps the wheels of modern industry turning, with more than 90% of all lead used being found in batteries and lead sheet.
The demand for lead in the 21st century differs dramatically from how it was originally used. Back in 4,000 BC lead was considered useful for artwork because it was soft and pliable. Its other properties were not really harnessed until much later, when the ever-resourceful Romans discovered that its malleable properties could be used to create pipes, aqueducts and tank linings.
Lead was used in early cosmetics, paints and pigments, and it was also considered to be therapeutic, with some people believing that ointments were more effective if kept in lead containers. Later it was recognised that some of the historical uses of lead were unsuitable, dangerous even, but in modern times the many beneficial properties of the metal are harnessed to create a positive influence on countless areas of modern living.
Lead’s incredible density makes it un-rivalled for protection from radiation. Lead stabilisers are added to PVC plastics to improve durability, and the metal protects thousands of kilometres of underwater power and communications cables by making them watertight and heavy enough to resist strong currents. Lead acid batteries are at the forefront of storage technologies for green energy, such as solar cell and wind turbines.
But the majority of lead is used, quite literally, to keep the modern world on the move. Lead acid batteries start cars, lorries, buses and motorbikes and there is currently no viable alternative. Lead acid traction batteries are also used in electric vehicles such as forklift trucks and golf carts, and are now integral to both current and planned hybrid vehicles.
Lead acid batteries are also vital as a back-up emergency power supply in cases of mains power failure and are used in hospitals and by the emergency services as well as in telephone exchanges, mobile phone networks and public buildings.
More than five million tonnes of lead are used around the world to produce this huge range of batteries, and close to 100% of them are recycled at end-of-life.
G&P Batteries has been at the heart of battery recycling for more than 35 years, with its core business built on the collection and recycling of lead acid batteries. The company’s specialist knowledge of the handling, storage, transportation and recycling of such batteries meant it was well placed to become a recognised industry expert when the Government introduced special waste regulations – later to become hazardous waste regulations – to monitor how waste was handled.
It also meant that G&P was able to use this specialist knowledge to extend its service to cover all battery chemistries, many of which are also classified as hazardous waste.
One of G&P’s core strengths is identifying the most appropriate and cost-effective recycling routes for batteries. Many other chemistries are sent abroad for recycling, but lead acid batteries have always been recycled in the UK by a company that in 2005 became G&P’s sister company.
HJ Enthoven, based in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, is the largest secondary lead smelter in Europe. Its plant is even built on the site of an original Roman lead mine. Both Enthoven and G&P are part of Ecobat Technologies Group, which is the world’s largest producer of lead and is also a retail, distribution and logistics specialist, making it the only global company to offer a closed loop recycling service for the metal.
In the UK, G&P and Enthoven work closely together, with G&P providing much of the feedstock for Enthoven’s plant, which produces around 80,000 tonnes of lead a year. This is used to create new batteries, some of which are sold by sister company Manbat, and also for finished lead products, produced by the final link in Ecobat’s UK operation, British Lead Mills.
Secondary lead production now accounts for more than half of all lead produced in the world. In the US more than 80% of lead is from secondary production, with Europe reporting more than 60%. These impressive figures are made possible by the fact that today most lead is used in readily recyclable applications in its own circular economy.
Greg Clementson is managing director of G&P Batteries. The background information and statistics in this article were supplied by the International Lead Association.