Used batteries have been a problem for decades from both household and industrial waste perspectives. While battery technology has changed a lot, even the most advanced rechargeable lithium-ion batteries may still contain materials that are considered hazardous.
It’s not only environmental pollution that is a problem. During the end-of-life stage of any modern electronic device, poor handling, storage, and disposal could increase the risk of fire or poisoning.
A much bigger problem is that the real “battery crisis” is still ahead of us. And we’re not just talking about li-Ion power banks for your phone.
Disposing of huge numbers of batteries from electric vehicles is going to be the real challenge — one we should master using the recycling technology we have today.
Fortunately, lithium-ion battery recycling is starting to become a widespread practice.
Here’s how you can do your part.
Yes, lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, but the process is a bit complicated. This might be the reason why you’re struggling to find a recycling center that processes this kind of waste.
The first challenge to lithium recycling is that you can’t handle those batteries like any other electronic waste.
Lithium is a highly reactive element.
To leave chemistry aside, let’s just say that dumping a lithium battery into a load of paper recycling wouldn't be the smartest thing to do.
Increased heat or electric discharge can cause the power cells to burst into flames. Cases like this are rare but are being reported increasingly often.
Even when done properly, stockpiling of water li-ion batteries is potentially unsafe and environmentally risky. Unlike other materials, these batteries can’t be reused directly, so recycling is the only viable solution. In addition, lithium battery recycling reduces the need for new mineral extraction, which is always a win for the environment.
So how is recycling done?
First, qualified technicians need to disassemble batteries into modules. These professionals are trained high-voltage specialists who use insulated tools to avoid electrocution or short-circuiting the pack.
Short-circuiting a lithium-ion battery is no picnic. It may lead to rapid discharge and overheating that in return generate noxious byproduct gasses that may cause a cell to explode.
You don’t even want me to go on about the cocktail of carcinogenic electrolyte additives that get released into the environment this way.
Once they take them apart, technicians assess which cells still have enough health for reuse in other applications and which need recycling.
The most important point is that you need to find a qualified e-waste recycler that can handle and recycle li-ion batteries safely and responsibly.
No, you can’t throw away lithium-ion batteries with your regular trash.
Not even in your blue recycling bin!
Let me tell you why.
There is some confusion out there when it comes to lithium-ion batteries and their environmental impact.
Big electronic manufacturers often refer to studies about how lithium is one of the least toxic metals utilized in batteries, and there's a certain amount of truth to that.
But, as always, you need to take those claims with a (big) grain of salt.
Some types of li-ion batteries contain metals that are highly damaging even in relatively small quantities when these batteries are broken down.
When these batteries end up in landfills, they leak environmental contaminants like cobalt, manganese, and nickel. Not to mention hazardous lithium salts and plastics.
As if that’s not enough, lithium-ion batteries can start underground fires that can slowly burn for long periods, contaminating the surrounding trash with toxic chemicals.
Underground fires are difficult to detect and may create large voids in the landfill. This can cause the landfill surface to cave in, burying flammable electrolytes even deeper in the ground.
Yet an alarming 95% of lithium-ion batteries find their way to landfills!
All this makes little sense when we know that it’s fairly easy to remove more than 90% of cobalt and nickel from these batteries.
Thankfully, some lithium-ion battery technology is replacing cobalt with safer, non-toxic, and relatively common materials such as manganese oxide or phosphate.
We don’t have to wait for the batteries to end up in the landfill — they can be toxic even before they are packed with curbside trash.
Damaged lithium-ion batteries may release fine particles with the aerodynamic diameters of less than 10 or 2.5 μm — the notorious PM10 and PM2.5.
The problem is that these particles contain matter-bound metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, or lead.
Dust can enter the respiratory system and cause a variety of health problems, such as cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, carcinogenicity, and endocrine system imbalance.
Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is a hazardous gas that can leak from used-up lithium-ion batteries. HF is highly corrosive and can enter the human body through the skin or by inhaling. It readily penetrates the skin and settles in deeper layers where it releases its toxic components.
It is estimated that between 20 and 200 mg of HF can be released per W of the electric vehicle battery pack.
This easily amounts to more than 80-800 times the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Immediate Danger to Life or Health (IDLH) level.
Do not under any circumstance try to take apart a lithium-ion battery!
Leave it to the professionals who know how to protect themselves and the environment.
Proper disposal is also important because lithium-ion batteries can pose a fire hazard when handled or stored improperly.
At GreenCitizen, over 95% of the exploded or bulging batteries that we get are from Apple products that use the Lithium Polymer (LiPo) style.
Some of us still remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall when improperly designed li-ion batteries were prone to overheating and exploding.
This effect is called the thermal runoff — a lithium cell basically self-heats, bulges, and combusts.
The problem is not going away by itself.
Veolia, one of the global waste handling companies has noted a 38% increase in fire incidents since 2017, due to the presence of lithium-ion batteries in the waste stream.
The UK Environmental Services Association estimates that nearly 250 fires in the country’s waste treatment centers were caused by small Li-ion batteries between 2019 and 2020.
The German Steel Recyclers Conferedation (BDSV) has reported a whopping 90% of fires at their associated sites in 2020 caused by Li-ion batteries.
But how can this happen?
If a charged lithium cell is crushed or pierced, it will short-circuit which also causes thermal runoff that leads to combustion or explosion.
This is one of the great challenges in lithium-ion battery recycling. You need to do it safely, because setting fire to all the materials you want to recycle is not the best way of recycling.
Leachate is one of the most serious hazards related to landfilling. Leachate is a result of biological, and chemical processes and rainwater seeping through the waste.
Leachate can transport hazardous chemicals and organisms over considerable distances contaminating solid and groundwater along the way.
Lithium-ion leachates potentially carry pollutants like heavy metals, additives, electrolyte degradation byproducts, but also dissolved gasses such as HF, HCl, or SO2.
These elements are not only outright toxic but also change the properties of groundwater.
Their acidification can have the same effect as “acid rain”, lowering the pH and impacting plants and animals.
With all the potential safety hazards, you need to know when your lithium-ion battery is done for.
If you notice any of the symptoms we’ll go through below, don’t wait to replace the battery and make sure the old one gets properly recycled.
Check what kind of lithium battery you have and find the manufacturer’s specs. This is where you can find info on voltage and capacity. Then try to measure the voltage and resistance when fully charged. Here’s the way to do it for a laptop battery.
If these values match with the manufacturer’s specs, you’re good to go. If not, start looking for a replacement.
All batteries self-discharge, which means they lose charge even when not working to power up a device. Lithium-ion batteries in good condition, however, usually don’t self-discharge quickly.
If you’re suspecting that your battery is bad, leave it disconnected from the device for a couple of hours. Measure the charge capacity before and after disconnecting.
If the numbers go beyond the manufacturer’s provided values, your battery has probably gone bad.
Overheating is one of the most common signs of a bad lithium-ion battery. Still, make sure to check the specs of the battery to see its normal operating temperature.
Batteries get hot with heavy use, but if the temperature is way higher than what the spec sheet says, you risk not only damaging the battery but also the device it’s powering.
If you missed the previous three alarms, bloating is a sure sign that you should immediately stop using the lithium-ion battery. There’s little you can do but look for the nearest recycling center that will take it off your hands.
Unfortunately, when it comes to bloating, there are chances that the battery has damaged the device as it tried to force its way out.
As we have seen so far, unauthorized handling or even worse trying to disassemble or recycle lithium-ion batteries can lead to a number of environmental and health hazards.
Registered and qualified e-waste recyclers that accept lithium-ion batteries use complex and energy-demanding processes that include pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.
In pyrometallurgy, battery components are smelted in a high-temperature process that burns and separates a mixed metal alloy of cobalt, copper, iron, and nickel.
Hydrometallurgy recovers the desired metals by treating the cathode material with an acidic or basic solution.
Finally, there’s a direct recycling procedure in which materials from spent lithium cells are directly reused after conditioning.
All these procedures require skilled technicians and considerable investment in processing facilities.
Unfortunately, wherever there is a potential to make a profit there are attempts to bypass the official lithium-ion battery recycling routes, as it’s already happening with the rest of electronic waste.
Such activities result in the pollution around the processing site and poor working conditions that compromise employees’ health and quality of life.
Illegal disposals may also occur when proper recycling turns “too expensive” for some businesses who need lithium-battery waste taken off their hands ASAP.
These wild dumpsites can pop up in random places and cause severe pollution, unexpected fires, and huge costs to local councils to clean up and remediate the area.
Once again, the burden of illegal disposal falls on local economies.
The problem even gets worse if the lithium-battery waste is exported to developing countries for “processing”.
About two-thirds of global e-waste gets exported, but only about 18% of it is formally collected, managed, and documented.
There are no guarantees that exported lithium batteries will be recycled or processed in a regulated, safe, and eco-friendly way.
The only safe way to recycle Li-ion batteries is to have them processed by a qualified electric and electronic recycling center.
For individuals, that means looking up your nearest center and dropping off any old phones, games consoles, laptops, or tablets. These will generally be accepted free of charge and recycled properly.
The problem is that not all recycling centers accept lithium-ion batteries. Email inquiries and phone calls take a long time, provided you have already tracked down the suitable facilities in your area.
GreenCitizen has developed the Green Directory, as a one-stop service for finding recycling services. The service is easy to use:
You’ll get a list of businesses that accept lithium batteries in your area. These might be big box stores, electronics retailers, or specialized recyclers.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and want to safely recycle your lithium-ion batteries, take a look at GreenCitizen’s electronic recycling program.
With GreenCitizen, you can dispose of lithium-ion batteries in two ways:
Private residents are welcome to bring their lithium-ion batteries to our EcoCenter in Burlingame.
Our address is — 1831 Bayshore HWY, Suite 2, Burlingame, CA 94010 USA.
Your lithium-ion battery will be recycled responsibly and safely, with no hazardous leaks and discharges.
But we don’t stop at batteries. We also recycle computers, laptops, monitors, and tablets.
Businesses that have larger quantities of batteries to dispose of may be able to arrange a collection by a recycling center or other services, so it’s worth contacting them first.
Feel free to contact our Business Pickup Service to schedule a pickup.
If your company is in the San Francisco Bay Area, just post us a pickup request and we’ll get you taken care of.
On your part, you should:
Our pickup service comes especially handy for large battery packs, like those that you can find in electric vehicles. It’s not that you can just pick them up and drop them off like any other electronic waste.
On average, about 50% of a lithium-ion battery can be recycled in an effective way. Unfortunately, this means that a considerable amount of the materials in it have to be safely stored in a permanent way. However, there have been some breakthroughs in recycling technology, with a Finish company developing energy-efficient processes to deal with up to 80% of the materials in rechargeable batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are not necessarily bad for the environment; it's the metals in them that are, especially if one of those metals is cobalt. If they don’t go through proper recycling processes, then metals like cobalt and nickel can leak into the ground and cause groundwater pollution.
When lithium-ion batteries die, the process that allows for ions to pass back and forth between electrodes slows down. This means that less energy can be stored, and you'll ultimately run out of power when you need it the most.
Lithium-ion batteries typically last about three years or 300 to 500 charge cycles before they get to a stage where they will no longer retain much energy.
Lithium-ion batteries are insanely useful, but it's important that you don’t unknowingly put yourself or others in danger because of them.
The fire hazards associated with them and the toxic metals that they contain could potentially lead to serious issues unless these batteries are properly recycled.
If you would like to get rid of some of your old li-ion batteries, you can visit the Green Directory to find battery recycling drop-off centers near you.
You can also give us a call at GreenCitizen at (650) 493-8700 if you want to know more information about li-ion batteries.
We thank you for doing your part for the environment!
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