“That sucker was on fire,” Bearden said.
The cause, as far as he could tell, was a lithium-ion battery that may have been damaged in transit and caused a spark that started the fire. None of the batteries stored at the recycling facility have been mishandled, Bearden said, adding that the company now receives so many that employees can’t always check all of the ones that come in.
“We may be crazy, but we’re not negligent,” he said.
Between a steady drumbeat of new gadget announcements, our collective embrace of tiny electronics, and the growing demand for a new generation of all-electric cars, our reliance on powerful rechargeable batteries continues to deepen. All the while, battery-related accidents like the one Bearden described — including some that could be avoided entirely — have become all too common.
In January, two firefighters were injured while responding to a blaze believed to have been caused by discarded lithium-ion batteries in a recycling plant in Taylor, Texas. And just a few weeks ago, the US Coast Guard issued an alert to marine security personnel describing how a container bound for China that was “illegally loaded” with discarded lithium-ion batteries caught fire while being transported to the Port of Virginia in 2021.
These incidents are part of a trend that has the recycling industry – and the government – on edge. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a report published last summer that he found evidence of 245 fires in 28 states between 2013 and 2020 that were likely caused by lithium metal batteries or rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. And that figure, according to the agency, is likely lower than it should be because not all incidents are made public or covered by the media.
The Biden administration has earmarked $3 billion to invest in battery innovation and recycling, but for now that’s up to state legislators and local governments to understand how to manage – and try to prevent – these accidents.
The incident rate “is going up, not staying the same,” said Joe La Mariana, executive director of RethinkWaste, a municipal waste management agency in Northern California. In September 2016, a four-alarm fire caused by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery ripped through a recycling facility operated by RethinkWaste, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and a complete shutdown of the plant for four months. And since returning online, La Mariana says fires caused by those batteries are still happening regularly.
“We had one about a week and a half ago,” he added.
Although the facilities and processes designed to manage these batteries responsibly are not immune to accidents, at least some of these incidents can be avoided entirely. And the answer is perhaps all too obvious: stop throwing things with rechargeable batteries where they don’t belong.
“They need to be handled properly,” said Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a battery recycling research and development facility established by the Department of Energy. “If you throw them in the trash, they can be crushed by machines or abused. Lots of people want to recycle them, which you should do with them, but they put them in their curbside bin. And it’s not the right thing to do either.
Trying to recycle these types of batteries the wrong way can be as bad as not recycling them at all. Because recycling can be confusing enough to do right, here’s our guide to what you should do with those batteries — and the products they contain — once they’ve lost their usefulness.
Consumer Electronic Batteries
The best thing to do with these items – whether they’re old phones, laptops, or anything else you can hold in your hands – is to make sure they have such a long lifespan. as possible. But eventually, the batteries inside all of these products degrade to the point where they can no longer do their job effectively. And that’s where your search for responsible recycling methods really begins.
- Municipal recycling programs: Not all cities offer e-waste or battery recycling services, but it’s worth checking to see if you can drop off the old electronics and aging batteries that powered them.
- Local battery recyclers: If your local government doesn’t have a way to safely dispose of those old batteries, broaden your search with websites such as Call2Recycle and Land911. Both maintain extensive databases of recycling facilities along with simple explanations of what these places accept and do not accept.
- Big box stores: For most people, their old rechargeable batteries are attached to or sealed inside consumer gadgets that once came from a chain store. Stores such as Best Buy and Staples offer programs where you can transport your old products or bulk rechargeable batteries to outlets, where they can be processed by downstream recycling partners.
- Product manufacturers: In some cases, companies that manufacture devices that use rechargeable batteries have developed programs to dispose of them responsibly. Dell, for example, will accept any device bearing its brand by mail for recycling and allow people to drop off their old electronics at participating Goodwill stores. Others, like Samsung, will direct you to local recycling facilities.
There’s one last thing to keep in mind: if you plan to recycle rechargeable batteries, be sure to cover their terminals with tape before storing and transporting them.
Some companies that used single-use batteries in the past have started moving away from them. IKEA, the popular supplier of meatballs and kit furniture, said it has phased out alkaline batteries entirely in favor of rechargeable batteries. Even so, you probably still have a cache of AAs and AAAs tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
In most states, you can remove a pair of single-use AA batteries from a remote and throw them in the trash without consequence. (Among the list of holdouts is California, which considers these types of batteries to be the same type of hazardous material as used rechargeable batteries.)
But just because you’re legally allowed to throw those batteries away doesn’t mean you should. the Advice from the EPA on this subject is clear: it is always worth sending used alkaline or zinc-carbon batteries to a specialist recycler. Our tip: If you were planning on periodically recycling some of your rechargeable batteries anyway, fill a bag with spent single-use batteries and take them with you. You don’t have to worry about sticking the terminals on standard AA and AAA batteries, but you should for 9V batteries and small button cells.
Electric vehicle batteries
Big batteries have become a fixture in the lives of some people, especially those who are committed to adopting more environmentally friendly means of transportation. Fortunately, dealing with some of these batteries once they’ve reached the end of their useful life is easier than you might think.
For batteries that once powered electric scooters and mobility scooters, your best bet is to seek out a local battery recycler who can handle them responsibly with the search tools provided by Earth 911 and Call2Recycle. Since these batteries are not as common as others, you should call potential recyclers ahead of time to make sure they are able to accept them.
The process is slightly easier if you’re dealing with an e-bike battery. Call2Recycle, the previously mentioned battery recycling management program, gives you the ability to search for local bike shops that accept batteries used by two dozen popular cycling brands.
But what about cars? Thanks in part to soaring fuel prices, demand for electric vehicles is on the rise. Research firm Gartner predicts that 6 million electric and hybrid vehicles will ship this year, up 50% from the more than 4 million shipped in 2021. Between this surge in interest and rising resource costs keys such as lithium, proper recycling of electric vehicle batteries will become a key. priority to car manufacturers.
Spangenberger of the ReCell Center says that “there are not many [electric] vehicle batteries are reaching the end of their life”, as many of the most popular models have been launched in the last 10 years. But when – not if – your Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model 3 starts giving you much less range than before, your first stop should be your local dealership. If necessary, aging batteries can be disassembled and handed over to recycling facilities or, in some cases, reused to power other machines instead.