Lithium-ion Battery Fire Risks & Correct Disposal

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Lithium-ion Batteries & Safe Disposal

Lithium-ion batteries are the primary type of rechargeable battery in most portable electrical goods and are made up of two electrodes that allow lithium-ions to flow through a solvent. Compared to traditional batteries, such as lead acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, have a longer lifespan and are more cost-effective. As they are one of the main components utilised in electric cars, lithium-ion batteries are also seeing wide use as part of the net zero transition.

While there are many positives involved in the use of lithium-ion batteries, the safe disposal and recycling of used batteries represent a major challenge. Intact and uncompromised, lithium-ion batteries are generally quite safe. But if the separator that divides the particles is damaged, allowing the electrodes to come into contact with one another and overheat; a phase known as thermal runaway, this can ultimately lead to a sudden discharge. As the chemicals inside the battery are extremely flammable, this can quickly cause a significant fire risk.

HWRC Centre building fire
HWRC Centre building fire (Picture: Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service)

With a rising focus on developing effective WEEE Recycling practices, the safe removal and separation of lithium-ion batteries contained in WEEE products have presented a recognised challenge. As such, the incorrect disposal of lithium-ion batteries has brought to light the fire risks involved, particularly when they are crushed or damaged during the collection process.

Recent reports from local authorities have claimed that as many as 700 fires in dustcarts and waste processing centres over the last 12 months can be linked back to the disposal of electrical goods containing lithium-ion batteries. Following on from these troubling figures, the Environmental Services Association has stated these incidents cost fire services and waste operators in excess of £150m a year.

An HWRC Centre in Gateshead suffered a major fire in 2021. While there were fortunately no resulting injuries, the source was never officially identified. However, the Gateshead council believed it was likely caused by a damaged battery or vape that ignited the other waste that lay around it.

Disposable Vaping Devices

Lithium-ion battery for a vaping device
Vaping device lithium-ion battery

In recent times, the disposal of vaping devices has provided a rising cause for concern due to the vast quantities disposed of in general waste streams on an annual basis. Independent not-for-profit organisation, Material Focus, has reported findings that state around 1.3 million disposable vaping devices are thrown away on a weekly basis in the UK, despite being fully recyclable. Disposable vaping devices contain nicotine, plastic and lithium, all of which are potentially hazardous when littered. While disposable vapes are designed to be discarded once the liquid inside them runs out, most still contain a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, leading to a potential fire risk if damaged.

As a result of these findings, organisations such as Green Alliance, the Marine Conservation Society and the RSPCA have written to the government to address the escalating threat that these products pose to public health and the environment. The Scottish Government is also set to consider a ban on disposable vapes, as confirmed by Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Humza Yousaf. The review will be led by Zero Waste Scotland.

Correct Battery Disposal

Packaging with lithium-ion battery warning label
Lithium-ion battery warning label for packaging

Fundamentally, the issues surrounding lithium-ion batteries can be linked back to the incorrect and unsafe practices involved in their disposal, in addition to a simple lack of education. Material Focus found that 45% of householders are unaware of the fire risks involved if they don’t safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries. As a result, a rising tide of the British population, and internationally, place these devices amongst regular household rubbish or mix them with other recycling. The presence of other flammable materials like plastic, paper and card, can quickly act as a stimulant for fires.

In order to dispose of lithium-ion batteries correctly and in a safe manner that protects our environment, they should always be recycled rather than sent to landfill sites. Although difficult with disposable vapes, damaged batteries should be removed from a product where possible and placed in a sealed container with inert, non-flammable materials, away from any buildings or combustibles. When lithium-ion batteries need to be transported, they should be properly packaged to ensure that they cannot be damaged in transit.

Some major E-commerce companies like Amazon have also implemented securely packaged envelopes for transporting flammable lithium-ion batteries, with clear warning labels attached in order to advise customers of the potentially hazardous materials contained inside.

Household Solutions

Designated collection points are currently the most effective solution for ensuring the safe disposal of lithium-ion batteries. For these to succeed, they must be easily accessible for every household. Material Focus runs an online search tool through their Recycle Your Electricals campaign, helping people find their nearest recycling point. The organisation has since reported a 40% surge in media coverage about recycling electricals since the campaign’s inception, in addition to 25% more visits to their website.

Clear bags containing used batteries for curbside collection
Battery bags for curbside collection

Accessibility can be further supported through the use of clear signposts to assist in navigation, as well as the incorporation of fire-risk posters and dedicated signage to advise people of the dangers involved with incorrect lithium-ion battery disposal.

In some instances, curbside collection services provide an effective solution for those without frequent access to a vehicle or other forms of transport. In partnership with public services company Serco, Breckland Council recently announced the launch of a free weekly curbside battery collection. They have advised that households use freezer or similar sized clear bags to store their batteries, placing them on top of their bins in order to ensure they are separated and restricted from posing fire-risks.

Likewise, waste solutions company Envirocraft offers a collection service that provides users with a specialist container with inert wrapping to ensure the batteries don’t come into contact with reactive materials. When the box is full and ready to be collected, users simply contact the company’s collection team.

Communal Environment Solutions

Battery Bin
Waste bin with dedicated battery disposal point

In communal settings, collection of waste streams and batteries can still present a challenge. These are often densely populated communities with restrictions on access to communal waste & recycling facilities that are often poorly managed and unfit for purpose, leading to anti-social behaviour and discouraging use through concerns with user safety. As a result, residents are often unable to receive the benefits of a curbside collection service, while their nearest collection point may be several miles away at a HWRC or supermarket location. Restrictions to vehicle access may therefore preclude this.

In response, metroSTOR has developed a solution. Highlighting our brand ethos of ‘Safer Neighbourhoods. Cleaner world’, battery collection boxes can also now be added to any metroSTOR communal bin housing, reducing the need for a specific visit to a collection point and encouraging easily accessible disposal points in communal waste settings. This addition to our refuse products also helps to ensure batteries are correctly recycled, reducing fire risks and the demand for rare-earth minerals.