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Sustainable solutions in spotlight amid e-rickshaw boom

Experts say use of lead-acid batteries threatens public health

FE REPORT | April 03, 2024 00:00:00

Stakeholders at a workshop have called for sustainable management of batteries for electric three-wheelers, a rapidly growing sector that now consumes over 5 per cent of the country's electricity.

The market for batteries for these millions of vehicles -- known as EZ bikes, mishuks, and e-rickshaws -- reached around Tk 87 billion ($871 million) in 2022. They transport more than 112 million people daily.

A key hurdle for this industry is the environmentally sound management of used lead-acid batteries, the current dominant technology in Bangladesh's electric mobility sector.

The workshop, titled 'Working with the Battery Industry on Solutions for Quality, Sustainability, and Market Access', explored probable solutions to this challenge.

The alternatives include the use of high-quality lead-acid batteries, alternative technologies with higher energy density, innovative business models and sustainable recycling practices.

The event, jointly organised by Pure Earth Bangladesh and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), was held at a Dhaka hotel on Tuesday and facilitated by Amrita Kundu of Georgetown University and Prof Erica Plambeck of Stanford University.

Each EZ bike's batteries contain 125 kg of lead, 15 times more than a car battery. Informal recycling of these batteries, estimated to generate 167,000 tonnes of lead waste annually, poses a serious threat to public health.

Research shows that over 20 per cent of Bangladesh's population lives within 5 km of informal smelting sites. These communities experience a 6 per cent increase in pregnancy terminations.

Moreover, high blood lead levels, found in two-thirds of Bangladeshi children which is around 36 million, are linked to reduced intelligence, hindering education and future earning potential. Lead exposure can also cause cardiovascular and renal diseases.

Mahfuzar Rahman, country director of Pure Earth Bangladesh, said around 60 per cent of Bangladeshi children are affected by lead pollution, contributing to an estimated 140,000 adult cardiac deaths annually.

Henrique Pacini, economic affairs officer at UNCTAD, said informal lead-acid battery recycling creates persistent environmental pollution and health problems, impacting current and future generations.

Meanwhile, a lack of regulation on battery standards and high import tariffs and taxes on battery imports have led to widespread local recycling, often resulting in very poor-quality batteries, speakers pointed out.

A set of EZ bike batteries costs more than Tk 72,000 (or $650) but lasts only for 8-11 months. This short lifespan causes a high recycling rate and increased lead pollution.

It also increases the operating cost of EZ bikes, affecting the livelihoods of millions of drivers and vehicle owners, businesses said.

Considering that only 30 per cent of used lead-acid battery (ULAB) recycling is formal, the government loses an estimated $91 million in tax revenue per year, businesses added.

Representatives from the Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, International Growth Centre, Advanced Energy Technology of USAID-BADGE, icddr,b, Accumulators Battery Manufacturers & Exporters Association of Bangladesh, and senior officials from various local battery companies joined the workshop.

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