Lithium Batteries Are Causing Fires at Recycling Plants. Are They Really Environmentally Friendly?

lithium batteries in a metal bucket and spread on the ground

As a company that prides itself on being environmentally friendly, we pay a lot of attention to news coming out of the recycling world. 

One of the issues that recycling facilities are dealing with today is the fire risk posed by lithium batteries.  A new report by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and Resource Recycling Systems estimates there are more than 5,000 fires annually at recycling facilities, which endanger life and contribute to rising costs. There have been quite a few stories emerging nationally about fires that have broken out at recycling facilities due to the combustion of lithium-ion batteries.   In fact, there were 2 major fires at recycling facilities the last week of May, 2023. 

On the evening of May 30, 2023, a Casella Waste Systems facility in Boston suffered a 2 alarm blaze. The cause has not been confirmed yet, but a Casella spokesperson stated, “The dangers posed by the improper disposal of these batteries is increasing as their usage is prevalent in everything from laptops and cellphones to light-up shoes and birthday cards.  The potential for these fires puts our drivers, our facility operators, the public and our planet at risk.”  

And on May 31, 2023, a fire erupted in a materials recovery facility (MRF) in Milwaukee, WI, which took 24 hours to extinguish and resulted in severe damage and significant anticipated downtime.  The facility serves 280,000 households and 26 surrounding cities.

One thing is certain:  DO NOT dispose of lithium batteries or products that contain lithium batteries in household recycling or trash.  In a press release,  Jim Riley of the NWRA said , “Lithium-ion batteries are in more items than we might think. Besides recycling facilities, these batteries are a threat to the entire solid waste and recycling system, from collection to disposal, and impact our members every day. Given the risk they pose, it is important consumers understand that lithium-ion batteries should not be placed in their waste or recycling bins and should be disposed of properly through the right channels.”

We know the importance of having a robust recycling program in the US, and if lithium batteries are a threat to that program, we all need to know about it. This question about whether or not lithium batteries are really environmentally friendly is an important one. 

Let’s break it down. 

Lithium Batteries Are Considered the More Environmentally Friendly Option–Are They?

Lithium-ion batteries power a huge portion of our daily devices. They are in our phones, laptops, toys, and even our electric toothbrushes. There is a lot of excitement over the possibility of powering cars effectively with lithium batteries instead of fossil fuels.  And battery-powered lawnmowers and yard tools are also trending upward.

In general, they have been described as a better option than their previous counterparts, which contained more toxic metals like lead and cadmium. They are qualified as non-hazardous waste, and their components (iron, copper, nickel, and cobalt) are considered safe for both incinerators and landfills. 

However, there are some pretty big concerns about the future of these batteries. 

Concerns About Lithium Batteries

As these batteries become more and more prevalent, the sheer number of them poses a challenge for waste management and recycling systems. 

Lithium mining has a detrimental effect on the environment, and yet the batteries themselves are contributing to a move away from fossil fuel overuse. If a lithium battery in a car allows a person to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, does this cancel out the water pollution associated with lithium extraction? And many consumers found themselves stuck when unable to charge their EV’s during the recent deep freeze experienced nationwide.

Are Lithium Batteries a Fire Risk?

Fire is always a risk at recycling facilities. Do lithium batteries contribute to that risk? 

Lithium batteries are supposed to be recycled only at approved facilities. They should not be tossed into recycling bins or household garbage. The volatile compounds contained within the battery can spark spontaneously. When a lithium battery catches on fire, it is difficult to extinguish.  Fire departments are finding this problematic with electric vehicle fires that re-ignite on the scene or after the vehicle is towed.

Joe LaMariana from Rethink Waste says that these batteries are an “existential threat” to recycling facilities. A fire in one of these facilities can cause huge losses for the community, air pollution, injuries, and even death. If the fire is bad enough, it can cause the entire facility to shut down for weeks, months, or even indefinitely. 

The EPA researched to determine the severity of the threat of lithium batteries, and they concluded: 

“It is clear from the damage cases collected in this report that LIB-caused fires throughout the waste management process are already risking the safety of workers, bystanders, and emergency responders and costing the industry money. This problem is only going to get worse in future years. LIBs are already present in a wide array of applications, and their prevalence is increasing. As devices containing these batteries reach the ends of their useful lives, they will contribute to the surging number of waste LIBs produced. Likewise, as the world transitions to electric vehicles and reliance on intermittent renewable energy that requires significant storage capacity, dealing with large-scale end-of-life LIBs will also become a pressing issue.”

But perhaps there is light at the end of this tunnel.  Binit, Inc.,  has developed technology to spot batteries hidden in the mass of recyclables and alert personnel for removal before the trouble starts.  This could be a game-changer as the technology continues to develop and improve.

How to Recycle Your Lithium-Ion Battery Products

One of the most important things to take away from this discussion is the importance of properly disposing of anything that contains a lithium battery.

As these products grow in popularity, you will find more and more of them in your daily life. When you need to dispose of a battery or a product that uses one, be sure to follow the latest safety guidelines regarding the correct disposal process. That typically includes finding an approved drop-off disposal site. Many tool retailers and lumberyards, as well as electronic stores, have drop-off containers for lithium and rechargeable batteries.

Keep these products out of landfills and recycling plants where they pose a risk to the environment and the health and safety of workers.  NEVER dispose of a Li battery in household trash or recycling.

Polly Products: Recycled Plastic Outdoor Furniture for People Who Want to Protect Our Environment

We want to make it easy for people to make responsible recycling decisions. Our green mission is to reduce our environmental impact as much as possible by providing 100% recycled products, using sustainable business practices, and manufacturing our products right here in the USA. 

Take a look at our catalog of high-quality, environmentally-friendly products!

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