Recycling processing facilities, like Bayshore, have a challenging task in taking apart everything we mix together in the residential recycling bucket we place at the curb to prepare these materials to send to markets. Commodities like paper, cardboard, aluminum, metals, plastics and glass only have value when properly separated and shipped to end markets which manufacture new products and packaging from these post-consumer materials. Unfortunately, inappropriate materials are commonly placed in recycling containers that represent hazards to both employees and, in some cases, to the facilities themselves. No hazard has been of greater concern to recyclers across the country than fires with an alarming number believed to be caused by lithium batteries.
There are two types of lithium batteries in the marketplace today, single-use primary and rechargeable. Single-use are significantly less hazardous than their bigger cousin, lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. However, even single-use primary batteries are challenging due to their small size. For example, they are often found in greeting cards that play music. Consumers think the card, made from paper stock, is recyclable and into the recycling bucket they go. These small batteries can then become flammable when run-over by standard recycling facility machinery where paper quickly becomes the source of ignition.
Such was the case for the devastating fire that destroyed a facility in Passaic, New Jersey late this past January. The blaze lasted several days and what little equipment was left couldn’t be salvaged. The cause is still being investigated, but facility personnel have a pretty good guess. Just a week earlier, a recycling center in Portland, Maine declared a lithium-ion battery the cause of a fire that damaged a building even as it was quickly contained. The danger comes when these batteries are punctured or crushed as this allows the possibility of a chemical reaction that may create fire or even explosions.
Li-on batteries already power the majority of smartphones and tablets sold today, as well as the majority of the ever-expanding selection of electric vehicles. And there is good reason that they are the top choice - they have high energy density, low self-discharge, and their capacity or “lifetime” does not decrease over time like other rechargeable batteries. These benefits make li-on batteries not only efficient and useful, but also a promising development in the effort to move away from fossil fuels. Industry experts predict that li-on battery use will increase by an astounding 400% over just the next five years. Where will they be used? A better question is where won’t they be used. Some fascinating applications will be part of everyday life in the very near future. Diapers will have small tab batteries that will detect when the baby wets the diaper via smart phone alerts. Basketballs will have an embedded li-on battery so serious players can monitor their dribbling habits. Barbecue enthusiasts will be able to cook 6 different steaks at a time to exacting personal taste through battery operated thermometers. Farmers will monitor crop growth and soil moisture content from their pick-up trucks via smart phone.
With expanding use of both single-use primary and rechargeable li-on batteries on the horizon, widespread public education on proper end-of-life management is essential. New Jersey recycling officials are providing the following guidance to residents. Common A, AA, AAA and other alkaline batteries should be disposed of as trash. They no longer are manufactured with metals of concern and should be thrown out. Nickel–cadmium or NiCad Button batteries should be kept out of the trash and brought to county and municipal household hazardous waste collection facilities as they contain metals of concern.
Single-use and rechargeable li-on batteries should be managed through an evolving national network of convenient drop-off locations. Li-on batteries should NOT be thrown in the trash or the recycling bucket due to their highly flammable and combustible properties.
An easy way to find a drop-off location for li-on batteries is through Call2Recycle or Earth911. Both websites found respectively at www.call2recycle.org and www.earth911.com/recycling-center-search-guides/ offer tools and maps for finding the site nearest you. Call2Recycle has partnered with many retailers to create a “reverse distribution” system for collecting batteries and 90% of the U.S. population is within a 10-minute drive of one of their drop-off locations.
Each storefront is different, so make sure to check with your nearest location to make sure they have a drop-off bin before you bring in your batteries. Each municipality and county in New Jersey have highly trained recycling professionals who can be found through public websites. When in doubt, contact your local recycling coordinator to make sure you properly manage your li-on batteries.
We can avoid fires and keep our recycling centers safe and productive if the public can identify li-on batteries in the products they purchase, understand the dangers they pose and know how to properly manage them at the end of their useful life. Li-on batteries are here to stay and we should recognize the great benefits they bring to our daily lives. They can and already do help us create more sustainable machines and products. They harness renewable energy and reduce the need for fossil fuels, and it is clear they will play a vital role in attaining a more sustainable future. Let’s make sure we manage them properly by being informed consumers and environmental stewards!