Japan Urban Miners Seek Export Protection From Korean Rivals

Updated on
  • Lead smelters risk collapse, says Japan’s mining assocation
  • South Korea says waste disposal and imports separate issues

Japan’s metals industry is calling on the government to revise export rules and suspend sales of used lead-acid car batteries to South Korea, as it seeks to protect domestic smelters from a massive outflow of recyclable metal.

Last year, Japan shipped almost 76,000 metric tons of the batteries to its Asian neighbor, up from around 200 tons a decade ago, according to government figures. That’s about 99 percent of all such exports from Japan and the trade was worth 7.6 billion yen ($75 million), the figures show.

Most of Japan’s ore reserves have been depleted, leaving smelters to either import material or recycle metals from the nation’s rich stock of discarded devices from auto parts to smartphones in an endeavor dubbed ‘urban mining.’ Losing used batteries as a source of supply to South Korean competitors risks the collapse of Japan’s lead industry, according to the Japan Mining Industry Association.

For lead producers, conditions have sufficiently soured to force some smaller operations out of business as South Korean rivals hoover up supplies to satisfy their expanded capacity, according to the association, which represents Japan’s smelters.

“The thing that we worry about the most is that no one will exist in the lead industry,” Takashi Shimizu, managing director of the association, said in an interview in Tokyo last week.

Potential Hazards

While recycling batteries wins high marks for sustainability, it creates potentially hazardous byproducts. In June, South Korea’s environment ministry said 11 of its smelters were illegally disposing of battery waste containing levels of arsenic that exceeded safety limits by as much as 682 times, without naming the companies. Profit from the activity was about 5.6 billion won ($5.1 million) and led to four arrests, according to a ministry statement.

Taking short cuts on safety may have allowed South Korean smelters to offer higher prices for Japanese batteries, according to Shimizu, and a report from state-run Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corp. While Japan’s exports to the nation increased 15 percent on year in the first half, they slid 4.7 percent in July following the notice highlighting illegal disposal practices, the Japanese government’s figures show.

Urgent Matter

“As a matter of urgency, Japanese exports of waste batteries should be suspended until we can make sure they are properly handled,” said Shimizu. “The problem has arisen in South Korea where many Japanese batteries have been shipped.”

South Korea won’t ban companies from importing used batteries as long as they treat them properly, an official at the nation’s environment ministry, who asked not to be named because of policy, said by phone on Sept. 7. The issue in June was about how waste was handled and not about imports, the official said.

Larger Japanese firms supplying lead include Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co., Toho Zinc Co., and Mitsubishi Materials Corp. Of the four domestic facilities they operate, just one produces lead from ore, while the others use waste batteries as their main source of material, according to the association. Moreover, the facilities also process lead derived as a byproduct from smelting other metals. If they were shut, Japan would have to find other, likely more expensive, means of handling or storing the metal.

As it stands, Japan is unable to restrict used battery exports, according to Shimizu. The nation’s environment ministry said it is coordinating with the trade ministry to set up a committee that will look at revising those rules.

“An immediate review of the current legislative system is necessary to promote proper procedures for export and import of hazardous wastes,” Tomihiko Kayashima, vice director at the environment ministry’s waste management and recycling department, said by phone on Sept 7.