While the world was wading through the COVID-19 pandemic in the year 2020, a report by UNICEF entitled “The Toxic Truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential” raised concerns about the mental and physical health of our future generations. The report precisely mentioned that approximately a third of the world’s children have higher exposure to lead as their blood lead levels have 5 micrograms per deciliter or more -levels which are hazardous to their health. Though high lead levels are equally harmful to the grown-ups, the high levels of lead in children are known to reduce IQ, decrease attention span, cause anaemia, kidney and liver disorders etc. in children. In India, the report mentioned, 27.5 crores of children have such high lead blood levels which made it a matter of concern.
The next obvious question after this startling report was the reason behind the high exposure of children with lead. Why is the exposure this high? What are the sources? And how can we decrease the exposure?
While the time of its discovery remains unknown, lead -a silverish coloured metal with a bluish tint-has been put to use time and again in history. Lead finds its use in various industries such as paints, cosmetics, dyes, ammunition, jewellery etc., but the battery sector remains the major consumer of this metal by utilizing 85% of the production. Several rules on battery waste management, handling and recycling have been put in place at appropriate times by the respective countries to handle the lead pollution. Recycling was put forward as a good way to deal with the scarcity of metal and to handle the accompanying pollution. However, the proper recycling of lead is still a concern and it is lagging due to mushrooming of the unregulated battery recycling sector alongside the regulated ones.
Dr. R K Amit has been concerned with the lead pollution in the country and was working to find out the appropriate policy instruments that can help India be free of lead pollution. Similar were the concerns of Dr. Janakarajan Ramkumar, Professor, Mechanical Engineering and Dr. B Vipin, Assistant Professor, Industrial & Management Engineering at IIT Kanpur. The research groups joined forces to look collectively at the problem of lead recycling in India and recently the team published the results of their work in an esteemed international research journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.
“The insufficiency of primary lead sources to satisfy the demand makes the recycling of used batteries necessary. However, the unscientific way of recycling by the unregulated sector poses serious environmental and health threats due to the high amount of lead excretion. We studied to quantitatively assess the impact of different policy instruments on shifting the recycling business from unorganized to the organized sector in India” says Dr. R K Amit, Associate Professor at the Department of Management Studies at IIT Madras.
The workers who recycle lead in an informal setting break the lead-acid batteries in a fashion causing spillage of acid and lead dust in the soil and surroundings. Also, the lead is melted in open furnaces due to which poisonous gases reach the air. This way of lead recycling is not only harmful to the environment but also to the health workers engaged in the recycling process.
However, the low operational cost of this manoeuvre makes it still an attractive choice. The problem is more akin to the developing countries where the costs and lenient regulations and laws have helped the unregulated sector to grow at a faster pace.
In their publication, Mr. Joshi, Dr. Vipin, Dr. Ramkumar, and Dr. Amit assessed the impact of policies such as reducing the tax on regulated recyclers, subsidies to organized recyclers and formal battery remanufacturers on the performance of battery recycling to name a few. Though several such studies have been conducted in the past, the USP of this study is its quantitative nature. The researchers used a system dynamics model to explore the implications of policies on the battery recycling process.
The study suggests that the policy guidelines such as reducing the tax on the regulated recycling sector and providing subsidy to such sectors to reduce lead pollution from lead-acid battery recycling. One interesting insight is that a very high subsidy can lead to the shutting down of both regulated and unregulated recycling sectors.
“The unregulated informal sector that dominates the solid waste market in India is largely absent in developed countries. So, modeling research of this kind provides important insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of various policy instruments in the Indian context. The other strengths of the study include (i) modelling based on a thorough understanding on how the recycling markets operate in India and (ii) simulations based on the actual prevailing prices in the battery recycling market to compare three different economic instruments. The value of these modeling exercises also lies in the non-obvious, sometimes counterintuitive results they generate. For example, the paper shows that subsidies for formal batteries lead to unintended effects beyond a certain threshold,” said Dr. Rama Mohana R Turaga who is Associate Professor at IIM Ahmedabad and a noted expert in this field, while commenting on the study.
Motivated by the results of their study, the team is all keen to take the study forward.
“From the implementation point of view, the policymakers can consider the results of this study to frame policies and rules for the LAB recycling activity in India. As a natural course of future research, the implication of these policies on the social dimension, in terms of job loss in the unorganized sector and possible ways through which the unorganized sector’s workforce can be integrated with or relocated to the organized sector will be explored” adds Dr. Amit.
Besides Dr. R K Amit, the research team included Dr. B Vipin, Dr. Janakarajan Ramkumar, and Mr. Brahmesh Vinayak Joshi from IIT Kanpur.
Article by Aditi Jain
Here is the link to the research article: