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Lithium Ion Battery Recycling: Separating Fact from Fiction

Featured image for lithium ion battery recycling article

Used batteries have been a problem for decades from a household and industrial waste perspective. While battery technology has changed a lot, even the most advanced rechargeable lithium ion batteries may still contain materials that could be considered hazardous.

Most people just associate environmental pollution with these types of batteries, but there are other risks you need to be aware of.

During the end-of-life stage of any modern electronic device, poor handling, storage, and disposal could increase the risk of fire or poisoning.

Fortunately, lithium ion battery recycling is starting to become a widespread practice (even though it can be difficult to do so), and we’ll show you exactly how you should approach it and why.

Dos And Don’ts When Recycling Lithium Ion Batteries

While it’s not easy for recyclers to do lithium-ion battery recycling, there are still quite a few of them that specialize in these materials.

And it’s not going to cost you a fortune to do the right thing by bringing your used batteries to these recycling centers.

With the production of li-ion batteries rapidly increasing not just in the electronics industry, it’s going to become increasingly more likely that you’ll end up with the need to deal with them safely.

So here are 5 things you should consider doing with all these types of batteries you have lying around, and 5 things you should avoid.

DOS

  • Whenever possible, remove the battery from the device.
  • If the batteries are physically damaged, store them in an insulated plastic bag to avoid any short-circuiting.
  • Keep them in a cool and dry place to avoid combustion.
  • Bring them to a certified recycling provider who can safely deal with the hazardous materials they may potentially contain.
  • Contact their manufacturer to see if there is an industry collection program for them.

DON'TS

  • Don't dump used batteries into your regular waste.
  • Don't crush or puncture the batteries resulting in leakage or short-circuiting.
  • Don't store large quantities of li-ion batteries close together without capping or taping off exposed connectors.
  • Don't throw li-ion batteries in the regular blue recycling bin.
  • Don't keep old batteries close to flammable materials.

Can You Throw Away Lithium Ion Batteries?

No, you can’t throw away lithium-ion batteries with your regular trash or even in your blue recycling bin.

And there are three specific reasons why.

1. Some Metals They Contain Are Toxic To The Environment

There is some amount of confusion out there when it comes to lithium-ion batteries and their environmental impact. You’ll often hear big electronic manufacturers refer to studies about how lithium is one of the least toxic metals utilized in batteries.

And there is a certain amount of truth to that.

But, as always, you have to take a closer look.

Some types of li-ion batteries contain metals like cobalt that are highly damaging even in relatively small quantities when these batteries are broken down. [1]

li-ion battery from sony

Thankfully, some lithium-ion battery technology is forgoing cobalt for safer, non-toxic, relatively common materials such as manganese oxide or phosphate.

2. They're Toxic To Humans When Broken Down or Damaged

First things first: The important thing to understand with these batteries is that even though they may contain materials that could be considered toxic or hazardous, the batteries are not exactly dangerous when they’re contained inside an electronic product (like when they’re inside a laptop, for example).

However, once you break down the electronics, the batteries that are now in the open can potentially be toxic to humans.

On average, about 50% of a lithium-ion battery can be recycled in an effective way.

This is especially true if they get exposed to dampness, heat, or accidental damage.

Each of the cells within a battery is a separate unit, but even if one of them gets damaged, this could cause a chain reaction. This would then lead to harmful metals leaking out.

Inhaling or otherwise coming into contact with metals like cobalt can cause very serious health problems.

That’s why battery recycling should be your first option for keeping your family safe.

3. They're a Potential Fire Hazard

bulging lithium ion battery

One of the underrated reasons why proper lithium ion battery disposal is important is because there is a certain level of fire hazard associated with them.

At GreenCitizen over 95% of the exploded or bulging batteries that we get are from Apple products that use the Lithium Polymer (LiPo) style. [2]

You may have also heard about problems Samsung had with some of its batteries suddenly catching fire.

And while that was mainly down to a design and production problem, there is still a risk when a li-ion battery is not stored properly. All it takes is for one energy cell to overheat, and it will spread in a chain reaction type of way.

One way you can prevent this is by storing your battery packs in a fire-proof and explosion-proof battery bag.

You can do this when you're travelling or even when you're simply charging them at home.

We like using the LiPo Safe Bag from COLCASE for this purpose, since it has a fire retardant coating outside and is made from fire retardant fiberglass nylon inside.

This means that it can literally prevent your house from burning down, as one reviewer experienced after the two LiPo batteries she was charging inside suddenly burst into flames.

Luckily for her, the COLCASE LiPo Safe Bag completely contained the fire — saving her and her family from any real danger.

Other battery bags that work well based on our own experience are the O'woda LiPo Battery Bag (I, personally, mostly use it to store my DJI drone batteries) and the YIYATOO LiPo Battery Pouch.

Are Lithium Ion Batteries Recyclable?

Yes, lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, but the process is not easy. This is why not all recycling centers have processes for handling this type of electronic waste.

Also, you can’t deal with it in the same way as you would deal with other electronic waste. And it all comes down to the fact that lithium is a highly reactive element.

I personally am a big fan of the technology. I think lithium-ion is transformational. But these batteries also have to be handled properly.


Ronald Butler, Battery Safety Expert

We won’t bore you with a physics lecture here, but it’s important to understand this for your own and other people’s safety.

If a li-ion battery ends up among a load of paper recycling and you expose it to heat or an electric charge, then a power cell could burst into flames.

This might seem like it would be quite unlikely, but it is happening increasingly often.

That’s why recycling lithium ion batteries in a safe and proper way is so important.

How To Recycle Lithium Ion Batteries

used lithium ion batteries considered as ewaste

The only safe way to recycle li-ion batteries is to have them processed by a qualified electric and electronic recycling center.

As an individual, 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 for proper recycling.

Businesses who 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.

This is especially important for large battery packs, like those that you can find in electric vehicles. It’s generally not that easy to just pick them up and drop them off like any other electronic waste.

Where To Recycle Lithium Ion Batteries

You can look for lithium ion battery recycling centers by using the resources and services listed on our Green Directory.

Simply click on "Green Directory" found at the top of the GreenCitizen home page. Then, enter your location in the search function and you’ll get a list of approved recycling firms.

The recycling processes of those recycling firms will usually cover all types of rechargeable batteries from devices as small as cell phones all the way up to used batteries from electric vehicles.

Either way, there should be a recycling provider near you that would accept all types of battery technology and devices.

FAQ

How much of a lithium ion battery can be recycled?

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.

How bad are lithium ion batteries for the environment?

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.

What happens to lithium ion batteries when they die?

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.

How long do lithium ion batteries last?

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.

Conclusion

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!

If you liked this article, feel free to check out similar articles in our Green Blog.

Looking to buy new batteries for your electronics? Or maybe you're in the market for more bags to store your batteries in? Shop for them in our Green Store.


References

  1. https://cen.acs.org/materials/energy-storage/time-serious-recycling-lithium/97/i28
  2. https://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/types_of_lithium_ion


5 Comments on “Lithium Ion Battery Recycling: Separating Fact from Fiction

  1. Pingback: Are Lithium Batteries Recyclable? (And Are They Environment Friendly) - Eco and Holistic News

  2. I am a battery shopkeeper and always looking to get knowledge related batteries. Good to read your article, its full informative “Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling: Separating Fact from Fiction.”

    Dear Mr. Bolt
    Please the recycle of huge Lithum batteries will cause sure pollution and no one can
    guarantee 120 thousands ton of cars batteries with end of 2020 will be sucssefly
    recycled , for cars batteries let’s waiting new batt. technology offer higher energy
    less wait and environment friendly
    Till that time nothing replace petrol cars
    Regards
    Mouhamed Alkhouja
    mektric@hotmail.com

    For heavy usage battery needed to power vehicles for human transportation, are batteries “greener” than fossil fuels and how do costs of maintenance, replacement, and disposal compare? Assume a twenty-year lifespan of vehicle. Thank you.

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