Story

Inside Recycling Smelters on Java

June 08, 2016|

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Smoke billows from the chimney of the small battery smelter, carrying particles of lead, plastic, and sulfuric acid into the air. More dense smoke pours from the open furnace into the smelter’s main room, threatening to engulf two workers as they shovel the lead cells of car batteries into the glowing fire. Today in Pesarean, which is home to about 1,000 people, gray soil is everywhere. The dusty footpaths where children run barefoot are a dark gray. Fire pits where batteries were burned dot the village. Gray piles of ash and dirt sit where they were dumped years ago. The water in the small village creek runs gray, spilling its waste into a larger stream that flows into the rice fields. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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The gray cloud drifts over the countryside in Central Java, landing on rice fields and villages. Nearby residents complain that the haze burns their eyes, makes them dizzy and gives them headaches. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Women use blunt pieces of steel to pound small pieces of lead scavenged from a lead-acid battery recycling facility. The lead will be sold back to the smelter for recycling, earning the women a meager income. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Down the road in Kebasen, the three new battery smelters can process thousands of batteries a day. The environmental agency chose the 16-acre site to replace Pesarean’s home-style smelting, although two of the smelters were established by newcomers. All three operate within a compound run by Lut Putra Solder, or LPS, which also manages its own recycling ventures, often in primitive fashion. In one section, men wielding long sticks melt aluminum cans and bottle caps over open fires, the harsh smoke rising in clouds around them. In another, men make paving stones with slag from the lead smelters. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Karidin, a worker at a small metal foundry, carries slag to an outdoor dumping area after melting several hundred pounds of lead scraps. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Workers pour liquid lead into molds after smelting recycled lead from used car batteries. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Karadin, a worker at a small metal foundry, uses a scarf to protect himself from the toxic fumes that fill the facility. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A worker hacks at at a used car battery with a machete to remove the lead cells for recycling. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Workers pour liquid lead into molds after smelting recycled lead from used automobile and industrial batteries. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A metal recycling worker stands on a pile of scrap automobile and industrial batteries wearing only flip-flops. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A worker sorts bags of scrap metal in the yard outside a small metal foundry here. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Some of the many scrap items that are recycled in small foundries here. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Nur Sidik, 15, works in a backyard smelter behind his home. He and his family recycle scrap aluminum to fabricate decorative medallions. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Fathoni, 51, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, has lived in Pesarean for 30 years. A former metalworker, he’s now the village gravedigger and has a side job performing massages to relieve hernias. When the battery fires were blazing, he says, the air burned his lungs and made breathing difficult. He remains concerned about how the lead may affect his three grandchildren. “I’m very worried,” he says. “I know the land is contaminated and we can’t drink the groundwater. The government should do the cleanup immediately.” Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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The body of an elderly woman is lowered into a grave during a funeral service in the shadow of one of the many small smelters that operate throughout this small village of 1000. There are about 200 houses in the village, many of them built on contaminated soil. Even now, residents are building new houses on top of the lead waste.

“It’s poisoning the soil, it's poisoning the water, it's poisoning the air,” says Pesarean village head Agus Sustono, 38, who pushed for an end to the battery smelting. “We can see it with the naked eye.” Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Siswo, 30, stands among a pile of used automobile and industrial batteries inside a small smelter. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Siswo, 30, throws bits of recycled lead into a smelter furnace. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Siswo, 30, works at a lead smelter using only a scarf as protection against the toxic fumes inside the facility. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A boy tends a backyard smelter used to recycle aluminum scrap. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Thick dense smoke laden with toxic lead pours from a foundry stack and drifts over the residents of this village of 1000. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

It’s a paradox that one of the world’s recycling success stories is also responsible for pollution on a massive global scale. Production of vehicle and industrial lead acid batteries account for more than 85 percent world’s annual lead production. Consider that almost 99 percent of this production is eventually recycled and one would think that the life cycle of a typical automobile battery would be a textbook example of efficient green technology. Quite the opposite is true. With tens of millions of batteries flowing into recycling centers around the world, the demand for recycled lead far outstrips the capacity of the thousands of industrial and small-scale smelters scattered around the world.

Large-scale, high-tech smelters are capable of safely extracting and smelting lead from the used batteries. But tucked away in back alleys, tiny villages and remote industrial zones around the world are thousands of smaller operators who smelt lead with little regard for environmental regulations. These small-scale operations release hundreds of tons of lead particulate into the environment each year, poisoning the air, the soil and the ground water of nearby populations. This photo essay offers a rare glimpse inside several recycling smelters on the island of Java in Indonesia. Here, lead levels of entire villages are chronically high. Those exposed for years are already showing signs of lead poisoning. Tragically, those most at risk are the children who live in close quarters to the smelters that spew the black toxic waste.

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