Batteries in Household Waste – An Increasing Fire Hazard

Gregory Maines

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Jan 10, 2024

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have revolutionized portable electronics, promising climate-friendly solutions for transportation, renewable energy storage and other industries to meet the ambitious goals set by governments worldwide. The unfortunate side effect of this increased usage of Li-ion batteries is that the limited service life of the batteries results in the generation of millions of tonnes of battery waste each year.

Improper Disposal of Li-ion Batteries is Rising

By weight, Li-ion battery waste comes primarily from the stationary energy storage and transportation sectors, which are key sources for the battery recycling industry. However, the vast number of Li-ion batteries discarded are those inside portable electronics, including personal transportation devices (e.g., hoverboards), laptops, cell phones and e-cigarettes.

These portable Li-ion batteries and devices are intended for disposal by consumers under a patchwork of e-waste disposal programs, which often require consumers to transport their e-waste to a depot for proper disposal. Instead, many consumers mistakenly throw Li-ion batteries into municipal waste or single-stream recycling collection programs. According to a report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the rate of improper disposal of Li-ion batteries is increasing rapidly, with some material recovery facility (MRF) operators receiving over 1,000 Li-ion batteries per month.

Dangers + Impact of Improper Li-ion Battery Disposal

Municipal waste collection programs are often ill-equipped to handle the dangers of Li-ion batteries. The thermal and mechanical impacts are many, from sun exposure in the bin to compaction by the hauler to tipping at the landfill or sorting at an MRF.

Because the organic liquid electrolyte in most portable Li-ion batteries is typically flammable, impacts can damage Li-ion batteries and trigger thermal runaway, resulting in the ignition of the battery electrolyte. While the amount of flammable electrolytes is relatively low, the incipient fire event can ignite other flammable materials, including paper and plastics. In cases where such fires are not immediately noticed by personnel or detection systems, continued processing of this waste can spread burning materials throughout a facility.

The direct and indirect impacts of Li-ion battery fires on the waste management industry are enormous. According to the same EPA report, one landfill operator tracked 124 Li-ion battery fires over a three-year period. A severe fire can ultimately endanger personnel and cause tens of millions of dollars in damage, releasing pollution into the surrounding community. Moreover, waste management facility operators face a cautious insurance market and must dedicate resources to dealing with improperly disposed materials.

Protecting Against Li-ion Battery Fires in Waste Facilities

In addition to continued public outreach and education to reduce the rate of improper disposal, there are several steps that a waste management facility operator can take to protect against Li-ion battery fires.

The first line of defense is the employees, who should be trained in identifying and removing Li-ion batteries from the waste stream and responding to Li-ion battery fires. Incident pre-planning, ideally with input from the local fire department, can identify gaps in the existing fire protection and improve the effectiveness of the incident response. Best practices for facility design to limit the spread of fire include using non-combustible or fire-resistant construction and installing fire detection and suppression systems.

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About the author

Gregory Maines
Gregory provides a multitude of services including sprinkler/suppression system design, fire alarm and mass notification system design, building and fire code evaluations, and process hazard analysis with a focus on the industrial sector including oil and gas and manufacturing.