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Navigating the Charge: L/Li Battery Risks and Proper Disposal

originally published at EREF.


In the mid-20th century, the world saw the meteoric rise of asbestos as a miracle material, revered for its fire-resistant properties and used extensively in the construction and automotive industries. Its pervasive presence occurred in ceiling and floor tiles, insulation, textiles, brake pads, and engine gaskets, just to name a few. Originally hailed as a marvel, the latent dangers of asbestos were soon unearthed, revealing a public health crisis. Humanity has often had a complex relationship with innovation. The products that make our lives better can also reveal unintended consequences over time.


Such is the case with lithium and lithium-ion (L/Li) batteries. They’re everywhere – literally. Odds are there’s one in your pocket, in your backpack or work bag, in your garage or workshop space, on your wrist, and maybe even in your ears. Your phone, laptop, power tools, smart watch, ear buds, and even many portable medical devices (some glucose monitors and CPAP machines) are all likely to contain L/Li batteries.


The hidden perils of asbestos led to a reevaluation of its use. Now, the rapidly growing awareness of the risks associated with L/Li batteries, powered by the voices of experts like Dr. Bryan Staley, CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), is sparking (pun intended) a critical conversation on the safe handling and disposal of these modern-day powerhouses. If consumers are to continue this dependent relationship with L/Li battery-powered devices – and really, how could we not? – they will also need a heightened awareness and standardized protocols for the safe handling and disposal of L/Li batteries.


The Hidden Hazards of L/Li Batteries


EREF has written about this need before. L/Li batteries, while compact and efficient, harbor volatile compounds that can lead to catastrophic outcomes if compromised. In the past year, Dr. Staley has had conversations with CBS17, Spectrum News 1 North Carolina, ABC7 News DCWGN 9 Chicago, and WRAL. He has referenced numerous alarming incidents in which these batteries have ignited fires, a stark reminder of their potential danger. The phenomenon, known as thermal runaway, is a chain reaction triggered by overheating, physical damage, or internal short circuits, capable of causing fires and explosions, which underscores the volatile nature of these batteries[1]. This inherent risk is compounded by the lack of a uniform disposal strategy across different states, leaving many consumers confused about how to safely discard these batteries.


The Perils of Everyday Use


The ubiquity of L/Li batteries in high-use consumer products, from smartphones to electric scooters, underscores the importance of responsible usage. Dr. Staley experienced this firsthand when the charging battery from a toy exploded on his kitchen counter. Fortunately, the Staleys charge their L/Li batteries in a LiPo bag, designed for battery safety. These bags are just one tool in the key to safety: diligent handling. Consumers need to regularly examine their batteries – ensuring they are not damaged, use compatible chargers, and stick to the batteries that come with consumer products rather than purchasing third-party aftermarket batteries.


The Consequences of Improper Disposal


EREF's research reveals a concerning trend: nearly 40% of consumers admit to discarding L/Li batteries in regular trash or recycling bins. This not only poses environmental hazards but also significantly increases the risk of fires at recycling facilities. The National Waste and Recycling Association attributes over 5,000 facility fires annually to improper disposal of such materials, highlighting the urgent need for consumer education and improved disposal methods[2].


Advocating for Proper Disposal


EREF's efforts to raise awareness on this issue have a central goal: to educate the public on the correct disposal practices for L/Li batteries. Dubbed "recovery" rather than recycling, the process involves special handling to prevent fires – such as taping over battery terminals and using individual bags for each battery. Proper disposal is critically important, such as utilizing designated drop-off points, like those provided by retail locations and waste management divisions, and resources like www.call2recycle.org, to ensure these batteries are disposed of safely.


Consumers don’t need to fear technology and modern conveniences, but as we navigate their integration into everyday life, it’s important to recognize our collective responsibility to handle them with care. Through the concerted efforts of organizations like EREF and informed actions by consumers, we can mitigate the risks and ensure the safe, sustainable use of lithium and lithium-ion batteries.

 


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