Lithium Batteries Pose Fire Risks for Scrapyards and E-waste Recyclers

Lithium batteries are dangerous for recycling centers.

Used to power popular accessories such as smartphones and cameras, the batteries are often discarded along with their devices but cannot be recycled in the same manner because they can be combustible.

A 3,000-pound ferrous stockpile caught fire at a Tacoma scrapyard when a lithium-ion battery was included with a large load of consumer scrap. “People are unaware of these batteries and are getting them into the shredding stream,” Simon Metals President Paul Olsen said, according to a Recycling Today article.

Small but powerful lithium-ion batteries can retain much of their charge after the device that contains them is thrown into the trash or in with recycling. The batteries can then ignite if their terminal touches metal, thereby closing the circuit and creating a spark.

“If it’s at a recycling facility where it’s mixed in with paper and other items that are burnable, that goes up like you wouldn’t believe,” Carl Smith, CEO and president of the nationwide Call2Recycle program told USA Today for a story about how exploding lithium-ion batteries are causing trash fires. Lithium-ion batteries caused fires at an Indianapolis recycling plant and a recycling facility in New York City, for example, the newspaper reported.

Managing lithium-ion batteries

Call2Recycle has launched a battery safety campaign to prevent safety incidents such as fires. The organization estimates that 175 million pounds of lithium-ion batteries alone were sold into the U.S. market in 2017, USA Today noted.

Call2Recycle encourages consumers to recycle batteries by dropping them off at approved recycling locations. It also recommends taping battery terminals so that they do not cause a fire by rubbing against surfaces that could ignite sparks.

Employees at IT asset disposition company HOBI International manually remove all batteries, tape over their terminals and put them aside for shipment to battery recyclers, according to a Scrap magazine article about end-of-life hazards and product design. Scrap suggested that battery designers help mitigate fires by incorporating risk-reducing features like internal insulators and external terminal covers.

Olsen said that Simon Metals would take new precautions to prevent fires like the one it had at its Tacoma scrapyard, such as by forming smaller piles of materials and being more discerning in the materials it takes.

“We’re going to more closely watch what suppliers bring in,” Olsen said, according to Recycling Today. “We have radiation detectors, but [lithium-ion batteries] can be hard to find. So, suppliers have to isolate them. They have to get the batteries taken care of and out of the supply stream.”

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