The incorrect disposal of batteries is a serious concern in waste management. Lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, also referred to as ‘zombie batteries’, can cause fires in waste or recycling sites. Fire outbreaks lead to the release of the toxic components found in batteries and electronic equipment to the environment. Batteries with lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride are ignitable and can even explode when crushed or punctured during waste processing. Water ingress and excessive heat to the batteries can also cause them to ignite. Lithium-ion batteries are the most likely battery type to ignite. These batteries are found in numerous household devices including; laptops, mobile phones, blue-tooth devices, electric tooth-brushes, power tools, e-scooters and e-cigarettes. They are increasingly common due to our heavy reliance on technology which will only increase in the coming years.
Increase in Battery Related Fires
The Environmental Services Association in the UK reported a rise in the number of suspected battery-initiated fires from 25% to 40% at its members’ recycling and waste facilities. This equates to 250 fires at ESA member sites caused by lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride batteries during a twelve-month period. Since the cause of fires is often unknown, it is likely that batteries are responsible for an even greater number of fires at both public and private sector waste and recycling facilities.
Lithium-ion battery fires generate intense heat and considerable amounts of toxic gas and smoke. The toxic composition of the gases released in to the atmosphere were reported in a study conducted by Frederick Larson who found that lithium-ion batteries generate large amounts of hydrogen fluoride (HF) ‘ranging between 20 and 200 mg/Wh of nominal battery energy capacity’. Hydrogen fluoride has a kg CO2-equivalent per unit of 2.82. Other toxic components common in e-waste are lead, mercury, flame retardants (such as brominated flame retardants and PBDEs), cadmium, beryllium, bisphenol-A (BPA) … and there are many more.
Battery Recycling Options
So, what are the current recycling options for lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries in Ireland? WEEE Ireland (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and the European Recycling Platform are not-for-profit organisations providing collection services and drop off centres for batteries and electronic waste countrywide in Ireland.
I spoke with a representative from WEEE who reported that last year 48% of batteries disposed of in Ireland were recycled by WEEE. In regards to the possibility of kerbside collection of batteries, the representative stated that it is not currently possible as it is in breach of a by-law – local authorities will not allow kerbside collection of batteries. In the first six months of 2020 alone, WEEE Ireland reported a 50% increase in rechargeable lithium batteries entering the Irish market. The spokesperson for WEEE also explained, ‘We are working hard to encourage people to segregate batteries for correct recycling and not to put them in their household waste bins’.
Responsible waste management is dependent on waste disposal behaviour of the public. Can we trust society to recycle this type of battery correctly when the public are generally unaware of the consequences of not doing so? Education and raising awareness are crucial in order to influence better judgement in the waste management of batteries.
The author, Luke Ryan is an environmental consult working at Environmental Efficiency, a consultancy dedicated to helping clients achieve and maintain best practice. Luke can be contacted at email@example.com.