Lithium-ion batteries that have been improperly disposed of are causing costly fires in garbage trucks, recycling facilities, and other waste management operations across the U.S.
The number of consumer devices that draw their power from rechargeable lithium-ion batteries has proliferated in recent years, yet many consumers are not aware of the inherent risks these powerful batteries pose.
“Even when they’re at the end of their useful life, they have a small charge and can start a fire. That can be a real problem,” Rethink Waste Executive Director Joe La Mariana told the Half Moon Bay Review. Mr. Mariana’s San Mateo, California-based waste management plant burned down in 2016 because of a lithium-ion battery that someone had thrown into the trash. The resulting fire caused $8.5 million in damage.
In March, a lithium-ion battery triggered a five-alarm fire at a recycling facility in Queens, New York, that burned for two days. Similar fires have erupted in Indiana, Maine, Texas, and several other states.
Lithium-ion batteries can range in size from smaller than a dime to larger battery packs used to power laptop computers and hoverboards. They also come in various shapes, from the slim, flat devices used to power smartphones, to cylindrical batteries that power e-cigarettes, to disks that resemble coins.
But regardless of the size, all lithium batteries can spark an explosion or fire if they are crushed, damaged, or simply mishandled.
Even when consumers are careful to properly dispose of lithium-ion batteries, they can still inadvertently make it into waste managing facilities, recycling centers, garbage trucks, and landfills. This means it’s more important than ever for employers that handle waste materials to implement adequate fire-safety measures and evacuation plans to ensure a proper response and the safety of employees.
“We were very, very lucky that all 30 people evacuated exactly as their safety plans dictated. No one was hurt, thankfully. We were only dealing with a fire that affected the facility itself, not human life,” Mr. La Mariana told the Half Moon Bay Review.
Last year, 65 percent of waste facility fires in California started with lithium-ion batteries, according to USA Today. Real trouble can come if there are multiple other lithium-ion batteries present because when one ignites, it can set off a potentially uncontrollable chain reaction.
Unfortunately, there is no failsafe way to prevent lithium-ion batteries from exploding or starting fires in the trash. For now, only consumers can reduce the risk of these incidents by making sure they seal spent batteries or devices separately in plastic bags and making sure to put them in the recycling bin or take them to a local recycling depot or facility.