Reach meeting next week to debate fate of Europe’s lead battery manufacturing industry

A meeting in Brussels next week will discuss whether four chemical compounds irreplaceable in the production of lead batteries should be banned, effectively spelling the end for the technology in the region.

The proposal for an in-effect ban is part of Reach, a European Union regulation concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals that came into force in 2007. If the chemical compounds are added to the Reach authorization list, an end date for their use will be set.

After the meeting of the Reach 133 Committee on Thursday October 25, a vote is expected to take place in December or January following a four-week formal consultation period, according to a spokesman for the International Lead Association (ILA), which represents the producers of about three million tonnes of lead.

The ILA has warned that if approved, the ban would put thousands of jobs and the future of a critical battery energy storage industry in jeopardy, and has been meeting with European officials to press its case.

The compounds concerned are only used in the manufacturing stage, and are not included in the final battery, which is fully sealed, limiting consumer exposure to its contents, the ILA said. More than 99% of lead batteries are also recycled in a closed loop, limiting any opportunity for releases of lead to the environment.

Lead and lead compounds are already subject to the provisions of Reach and the Lead Reach Consortium has been established to help companies meet their regulatory obligations.

“This approach sets an end date for the use of these substances, and sends a signal to investors, the business community and to the market that lead battery manufacturing in Europe will be prohibited after a given period,” Andy Bush, managing director of the ILA, said.

“That is a guaranteed way of stunting future growth and disincentivizing further investment or innovation. It also jeopardizes thousands of jobs and companies throughout the value chain across numerous member states – all at the same time as the Commission is launching a batteries action plan for Europe,” he added.

Alternative measures
Bush called on the EU to urgently rethink and consider alternative measures to reduce risks, such as updating the workplace rules limiting employee exposure to the chemicals.

The lead industry has for years faced criticism that its manufacturing process contains hazardous chemicals and can be harmful. The sector has made huge strides to meet stringent environmental regulations but has not managed to entirely shake the image that the metal is highly polluting.

At the same time, other battery technologies such as lithium and cobalt, which also contain chemicals in the production process, have positioned themselves at the center of plans to decarbonize the economy and power electrification.

Lead batteries are currently responsible for more than three quarters of existing rechargeable energy storage worldwide, while advanced lead batteries are increasingly being used to store and manage renewable energy supplies, feeding both micro and national grids.

Aside from batteries, lead and lead compounds are used in a wide variety of products including paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, ammunition, and cosmetics.

Fastmarkets MB assessed the 99.99%-purity lead ingot premium at $165-175 per tonne fca Rotterdam, unchanged over the past several weeks. Spot demand is expected to pick up for pre-winter battery stockpiling.