One week after a fire destroyed a building at a battery recycling facility in Dalton, Ga., owner Lamar Bearden still doesn’t know exactly what happened.
“That sucker was on fire,” said Bearden.
The cause, as best as he can tell, was a lithium-ion battery that may have gotten damaged in transit and caused a spark that ignited the blaze. None of the batteries being stored in the facility for recycling was mishandled, Bearden said, before adding that the company now gets so many that employees can’t always check every one that arrives.
“We may be crazy, but we’re not careless,” he said.
Between a steady drumbeat of new gadget announcements, our collective embrace of tiny electronics and rising demand for a new generation of fully electric cars, our reliance on powerful, rechargeable batteries continues to deepen. All the while, battery-related accidents such as the one Bearden describes — including some that could be avoided entirely — have grown all too common.
In January, two firefighters were injured while responding to a blaze said to be caused by discarded lithium-ion batteries at a recycling plant in Taylor, Tex. And just weeks ago, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an alert to marine safety personnel describing how a China-bound container 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 put the recycling industry — and the government — on edge. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a report published last summer that it found evidence of 245 fires across 28 states between 2013 and 2020 that were probably caused by lithium metal batteries or rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. And that figure, the agency says, is probably lower than it should be because not all incidents are made public or are covered by the media.
The Biden administration has earmarked $3 billion to invest in battery innovation and recycling, but for now, it’s up to state lawmakers and local governments to figure out how to deal with — and try to prevent — these accidents.
The rate of incidents is “increasing, 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 tore through a recycling facility operated by RethinkWaste, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and a full shutdown of the plant for four months. And since coming back online, La Mariana says fires caused by these batteries still happen regularly.
“We had one about a week and a half ago,” he added.
Even though the facilities and processes designed to responsibly handle these batteries aren’t immune to accidents, at least some of these incidents can be avoided entirely. And the answer is perhaps all too obvious: Stop throwing out things with rechargeable batteries where they don’t belong.
“They need to be treated properly,” said Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a battery recycling research and development center established by the Department of Energy. “If you throw them in the garbage, they can be crushed by machinery or abused. A lot of people want to recycle them, which is what you should be doing with them, but they put them in their curbside bin. And that’s not the right thing to do, either.”
Trying to recycle these kinds of batteries the wrong way can be as bad as not recycling them at all. Because recycling can be confusing enough to get right as it is, here’s our guide to what you should do with these batteries — and the products they live inside — once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
The best thing to do with these items — be they old phones, laptops or anything else you can hold in your hands — is to make sure they live as long a usable life as possible. But eventually, the batteries inside all these products degrade to the point where they can’t effectively do their jobs. And that’s the point at which your search for responsible recycling methods really begins.
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 you store and transport them.
Some companies that once relied on single-use batteries have begun to move on from them. Ikea, the popular purveyor of meatballs and flat-pack furniture, has said that it has done away with alkaline batteries entirely in favor or rechargeable ones. Even so, you probably still have a cache of AAs and AAAs tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
In most states, you can pull a pair of single-use AA batteries out of a remote control and toss them in the trash without consequence. (Among the list of holdouts is California, which considers those kinds of batteries the same type of hazardous material as used rechargeable ones.)
But because you’re legally allowed to throw away those batteries doesn’t mean you should. The EPA’s guidance on the matter is clear: It’s still worth sending used alkaline or zinc carbon batteries to a specialized recycler. Our advice: If you were planning to periodically recycle some of your rechargeable batteries anyway, fill up a bag with depleted single-use batteries and bring it with you. You don’t need to worry about taping up the terminals on standard AAs and AAAs, but you should for 9-volt batteries and tiny button cell batteries
Big batteries have become fixtures in some people’s lives, especially those who have committed themselves to more eco-friendly ways of getting around. Thankfully, dealing with some of those batteries once they’ve reached the end of their useful life is easier than you might expect.
For batteries that once powered electric scooters and mobility scooters, your best bet is to hunt down a local battery recycler that can responsibly handle them with the search tools provided by Earth 911 and Call2Recycle. Because these batteries aren’t quite as common as others, though, you should call ahead to prospective recyclers to make sure they’re able to accept them.
The process is slightly easier if you’re dealing with an electric bike battery. Call2Recycle, the battery recycling stewardship program mentioned earlier, gives you the option of searching 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 forecasts 6 million EVs and hybrids shipped this year, up 50 percent from more than 4 million shipped in 2021. Between that surge in interest and increasing costs of key resources such as lithium, properly recycling EV batteries is going to become a key priority for carmakers.
The ReCell Center’s Spangenberger says that “there aren’t many [electric] vehicle batteries reaching end of life” yet, because many of the most popular models were released within the past 10 years. But when — not if — your Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model 3 starts giving you significantly less range than it used to, your first stop should be to your local dealership. If needed, aging batteries can be dismantled and handed over to recycling facilities or, in some cases, repurposed to power other machines instead.
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