The Hidden Dangers of Lithium Battery Disposal

Annika Collins

October 10, 2023

On 13 September, the recycle-more team attended the Recycling and Waste Management (RWM) exhibition, which featured a series of seminars addressing critical issues regarding sustainability and recycling. One of the seminars we attended was "The Hidden Dangers of Lithium Battery Disposal” where expert speakers: Antonia Grey from British Metals Recycling Association, Gareth Rollings representing LARAC, and Phil Clark from the National Fire Chiefs Council brought to light the pressing issue of lithium battery disposal and associated challenges.

Understanding Lithium Batteries vs. Normal Batteries

Before delving into the key takeaways, it's essential to understand the difference between lithium batteries and conventional batteries. Lithium batteries are a type of rechargeable battery that use lithium as a key component in the electrochemical process. They are commonly found in various consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and renewable energy systems. Unlike traditional alkaline batteries, lithium batteries provide higher energy density, longer lifespan, and generally perform better.

Now, let's explore the key points to takeaway from the seminar:

  • Growing Problem in Waste Industry: The seminar highlighted the alarming growth of lithium battery waste as a significant concern within the industry. Lithium batteries pose unique challenges due to their potential for thermal runaway, fires, and explosions if not disposed of properly.
  • Survey Findings: Material Focus surveyed Local Authorities (LAs), revealing a staggering statistic of 1.78 fires per LA, totalling 710 fires in Refuse Collection Vehicles (RCVs) and Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs). These fires resulted in a cost of £158 million per year. Most concerning is that 90% of the LAs that responded acknowledged that battery related fires are on the rise.
  • Impact of Consumer Electronics: With the increasing purchases of household tech devices, the seminar underscored the growing problem of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) items being discarded in household bins. This adds to the challenge of managing lithium battery waste effectively.
  • Disposable Vapes: Disposable vapes have emerged as a particular concern. With an estimated 5 million disposable vapes being discarded every week, contributing significantly to the problem. Grundons, a waste management company, reported that its operatives pick out 100-150 disposable vapes during a single eight hour shift. Recycling these vapes costs 80p per unit, and the public often lacks the knowledge or motivation to dispose of them correctly.
  • Lack of Disposal Routes: The seminar highlighted the need for more disposal routes for both businesses and households. Furthermore, there's a call for increased national awareness and a government led campaign to promote specific collections for items and electrical waste that contain batteries, including kerbside.
  • Dangers of Lithium Batteries: Lithium batteries pose unique hazards. They can catch fire due to factors such as thermal runaway, vapor cloud explosions, chemical exposure, and the ability to continue burning underwater without oxygen, potentially reigniting once extinguished. A recycling plant can be up in flames within 60 seconds and can then burn for 6-7 days, causing great harm to the local area and the environment.

In conclusion, the seminar shed light on the urgent need for increased awareness campaigns, improved collection methods, and enhanced processing techniques for lithium batteries. It highlighted the growing issue within the waste management industry and the potential dangers associated with inadequate disposal practices. Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative effort from government, businesses, and the public, to ensure the safe and responsible handling of lithium batteries and related electronic waste.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog represent those of the author, Annika Collins, and are not those of recycle-more, Valpak Limited or any other organisation.