How to stay positive amid the negatives of battery recycling

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Have you ever wondered how you should dispose of used batteries when there are no recycling bins nearby?

Wang Zixin, a Beijing doctor, staring at a used battery. [China Daily]

Wang Zixin, a Beijing doctor, staring at a used battery. [China Daily] 

Some keep them in a box at home for years, some send them to environmental protection organizations and some simply dispose of them with other household waste.

Trying to offer a further alternative, Beijing doctor Wang Zixin decided to build a battery-recycling plant - the first in China.

That was back in the 1980s, when he was at Nanyuan Hospital, in the capital's Fengtai district.

Wang had read that a small battery could contaminate 60 liters of water. Appalled, he decided he could better use his time trying to prevent heavy metals from contaminating the earth than treating patients with respiratory and digestive troubles.

"If we had a plant in the city recycling batteries, it could make a great difference," said Wang.

As a doctor who knew little about recycling batteries, Wang could offer little more to his new cause than passion and resolve. But in 1991, he quit his job and began conducting research into how batteries are treated in China and abroad.

He borrowed piles of books and documents, and consulted experts about the possibility of building a recycling plant and preventing leakage of poisonous gases and wastewater.

The intensive research and Wang's frequent visits abroad made him even more concerned about what happened to used batteries in China.

Wang said China uses about 8 billion batteries a year, or about 200,000 tons of them. But only 2,000 tons of zinc-manganese batteries are recycled each year.

"More than 4 tons of zinc are wasted every year because used batteries are not properly dealt with," said Wang. "That's simply a waste of resources."

As an example of what a country can do, Wang cited Switzerland. He said the Swiss use two battery-recycling plants to extract 780 tons of manganese and iron, 400 tons of the aluminum-zinc alloy, kirsite, and 3 tons of mercury every year from 2,000 tons of batteries.

In Europe, several countries can share one battery-recycling plant to reduce costs.

In 2000, inspired by seeing successful examples abroad, and in cooperation with the University of Science and Technology Beijing, Wang invested in the first plant in China to extract heavy metals from used batteries at Baoding city, Hebei province.

"If used batteries are collected and recycled, we can not only save a tremendous amount of resources but also avoid environmental pollution," Wang said.

But Wang's first attempt at turning waste into wealth failed, partly because the leakage of wastewater and poisonous gases at the plant did not meet the national standard in 2003.

Wang lost 80 percent of his savings - about 1 million yuan ($158,600) - with the closure of the plant, but his compassion and determination remained strong.

His wife, however, did not feel the same way.

"I know it was hard for her at the beginning. All the savings were gone and the whole family had to live on her income, together with my parents' small retirement pension," said Wang. "Life turned out to be so tough because I took a path that has been little traveled."

Wang said his wife has gradually come to accept the situation, but she still complains from time to time.

"The failure of the first plant was quite a blow, with little support," said Wang. "But it was also a precious lesson for me, as a novice in the field of environmental protection."

With little money left to re- invest in used-battery treatment, Wang started raising funds from friends. And one thing has made him stick even more firmly to his aims.

A friend asked him during a fundraising event: "What if you abandon the idea years later, with nothing left to pay us back?"

"The lack of trust was such an affront to my character," said Wang. "I shook hands with him and gave an oath. I said I'll make it happen, I will make it happen."

Ten years later, Wang is still pursuing his dream, "in a stubborn way", says his wife, but his second battery-recycling plant is due to start operating in July, in the Daxing district of south Beijing.

"With the vacuum heat treatment we have been working on in the past few years, no poisonous gas would escape, and the heavy metal, like mercury, would be extracted when the temperature reaches 357 C," Wang said.

"This will certainly meet the national standard."

But even if all goes well, the new plant will do little for Wang's finances, beyond accumulating more debt.

"Even if we get the used batteries for free, we can only make a profit of 1 yuan (16 cents) from 200 batteries, barely enough to cover workers' salaries and warehouse charges," said Wang.

That's why there are no battery-recycling plants in China, he said. No profit can be made.

"You are bound to burn your bucks if you run a battery-recycling plant without any funding or government support," said Wang. "I just hope my pioneering venture will at least open the way for the world's biggest battery consumer to follow."

Totally occupied in his campaign to recycle used batteries, Wang has barely had time to communicate with his 19-year-old son, who is due to take a college entrance examination around the same time that the new plant opens.

"I don't expect him to understand me, far less share my devotion, since it's been such a rough time for him going through all the hardship," said Wang. "He's got his own life."

"However, he will understand and be proud of me one day."

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