ISRI and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) hosted a briefing in conjunction with the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday, examining the safe handling, transportation and recycling of lithium-ion batteries.
Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.) and John Boozman (R-AR), co-chairs of the Senate Recycling Caucus, gave opening remarks. Legislative efforts were highlighted such as The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that provides $275 million for solid waste infrastructure for recycling grants and the $25 million allocated to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to increase battery collection and recycling nationwide and help reduce battery-related fires.
“Lithium-ion batteries are a modern innovation that are powering smartphones, smartwatches, earbuds, laptop computers, small blenders, vaping devices and even greeting cards. These products often end up in the residential recycling stream as well as the waste stream where they’re causing fires, which is the reason why ISRI and SWANA have come together to address this important issue,” said ISRI President Robin Wiener at the briefing. “As further innovation in the manufacturing of consumer products and the move towards electrification and decarbonization grows, more lithium-ion batteries and other battery chemistries are going to be introduced into recycling and waste streams. This risk is not going to go away.”
The panel at the briefing included Robert Pickens, Vice President at Recycling, American Waste Control, Inc., in Tulsa, Oklahoma, giving a look at what the private sector is facing. Pickens had experienced a thermal event at his facility in April 2021 when a battery erupted causing a fire and, eventually, a total loss of the facility. It took 11 months and $12 million to rebuild the facility and left 200,000 households without curbside recycling during that period. While rebuilding, Pickens and his company conducted extensive education campaigns targeted at consumers on how to properly recycle batteries.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Deputy Public Works Director, Solid Waste Division for the City of Phoenix, Arizona gave insight into the problems the public sector is facing. Rodriguez has seen an increase in lithium-ion batteries from the 400,000 households his municipality services, which has meant an increase in fires, especially inside trucks. More resources have been devoted to train staff and improve their fire suppression systems.
Craig Boswell, Co-Founder and President of HOBI International, ISRI member as well as former ISRI Electronics Division Chair, gave a different perspective as a consumer electronics recycler. Boswell noted that $1 billion in private money has been invested into battery recycling over the past five years and the Department of Energy rolled out a $350 million credit facility to further expand and recover the precious metals that come out of batteries. The infrastructure and the demand from various industries is in place to recycle these batteries the problem is that batteries are still ending up in municipal recycling and waste streams.
Ryan Woodward, Chief of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council provided the firefighter’s perspective. Woodward stated that lithium-ion battery fires present a significant challenge for firefighters as they take a tremendous amount of time to burn. He gave the example of a combustion engine car that takes a few 100 gallons of water and about 30 minutes on average to put out. An electric vehicle takes a few 1,000 gallons of water and at least a couple of hours to put out. Woodward also stated that it is still not fully known how toxic lithium-ion battery smoke is.
The panel agreed that best way to combat these growing fires is to educate the public. Consumers need to know:
- A product has a battery in it, especially as more and more unlikely products start to use lithium-ion batteries.
- That improperly disposing of these batteries is a public safety issue as it puts employees working at these facilities and firefighters at risk.
- Where and how they can recycle these batteries. The more convenient the method, the more likely the batteries will be recycled properly.
There were over 300 participants at the briefing presenting a wide variety of questions to the panelists. The three main questions addressed by the panel are listed below along with the panel’s combined response.
What can you do with your local fire department before a battery fire breaks out?
- Invite them in to tour your facility, show them areas where batteries might be contained, where potential hotspots might be. Have them get a closer look as to how the facility is laid out.
- Make sure firefighters know where power cutoff is in the facility.
- Let the fire department know where there may be a risk of secondary ignitions of batteries, should a fire start in your facility (processing area of batteries, storage area, etc.).
- Inform them of major equipment changes. Recalibrate fire suppression systems if certain areas of your facility are more prone to fire (especially after equipment change).
- You never want the first time you’re meeting first responders in your area to be when you need them in an emergency.
Are there incentives for encouraging consumers to better recycle their consumer products? Are there incentives or requirements that should be imposed on the manufacturers of the devices that have these batteries?
- Educating consumers. Getting information out so people know where they can dispose of their batteries; make it as convenient as possible.
- If you do any public speaking events, bring up how to properly recycle lithium-ion batteries.
Have you seen insurance go up as you’re handling these types of batteries?
- The insurance industry is aware of this situation. We don’t want to reach the point where these facilities can’t be insured because of the risk that is perceived or real when it comes to battery fires. Some MRFs are seeing a significant increase in insurance even if they’ve never had a fire.
- Show insurers that you’re taking every effort possible both internally when you process batteries and externally when you’re getting them out of the building to a proper disposal site. Also let insurers know you’re making an effort to educate consumers as much as possible — making a proactive effort to negate lithium-ion batteries from coming into your MRF.