Action urged to avert lead pollution health crisis from battery recycling

Informal lead-acid battery recycling in Malawi is producing hazardous levels of lead waste, researchers from Manchester University have found.


The team made their discovery whilst investigating waste management practices for off-grid solar technologies.

Informal recycling activities for lead-acid batteries used in solar energy systems were recorded to release 3.5-4.7kg of lead pollution from a typical battery, which is equivalent to over 100 times the lethal oral dose of lead for an adult.

Off-grid solar technologies are used to provide power to areas lacking grid connections and are crucial for expanding electricity access across sub-Saharan Africa.

The private market for off-grid solar electrification technologies is expected to provide electricity access to millions of people by 2030, subsidised by global energy companies in the Global North. Household-scale off-grid solar energy systems in sub-Saharan Africa mostly depend on lead-acid batteries as the most affordable and established energy storage technology.

Manchester University scientists warn that the absence of formal waste management infrastructure presents major human health and environmental risks and urge immediate government intervention.

The research, published in Applied Energy, was led by Dr Christopher Kinally for his PhD at Manchester University, funded by EPSRC.

In a statement, Dr Kinally said: “The private market for off-grid solar products is a very effective way to increase access to electricity, which is crucial for sustainable development. However, the resulting toxic waste flow is growing rapidly across regions that do not have the infrastructure to safely manage electronic waste.

“Without developing infrastructure, legislation and education around these technologies, there are severe public health risks. Significant social, economic and legislative interventions are required for these solar products to be considered as a safe, low-carbon technology in sub-Saharan Africa.”


Toxic informal waste management practices are known to be common for automotive batteries and electronic waste in low- and middle-income countries, but the environmental and health impacts of these practices have been widely overlooked. Efforts to promote sustainable development and electricity access are adding to these hazardous waste streams.

Dr Kinally found that within suburban communities in Malawi, lead-acid batteries from solar energy systems are being refurbished by self-taught technicians, who are not aware of the toxicity of the materials they are handling.

He found that batteries are broken open with machetes, lead is melted over charcoal cooking stoves, and improvised lead battery cells are made by hand. In the process, approximately half of the lead content from each battery is leaked into the surrounding environment. 

Dr Fernando Antoñanzas, co-supervisor of the PhD, said: “This study brings more light on the maintenance and end-of-life phases of small off-grid solar projects, indeed left unattended in most cooperation projects. While informal lead-acid battery recycling offers a short-term solution for electrification for the poorest, at the same time, represents an enormous public health risk across Sub-Saharan Africa."