Recycling : How to handle Li-Ion batteries

environmental protection recycling ecology waste waste management factory facility battery recycling industry
© Nail Fattakhov / Tass / pictured

Flight JL8 from Tokyo to Boston landed on schedule on 7 January 2013. A total of 173 passengers and 11 crew members exited the plane, with nothing to indicate a problem. But some time later, when a technician inspected the Boeing 787 – a Dreamliner, which was in parking position – he discovered plumes of smoke that could even be seen from the outside. The reason was a lithium-ion battery responsible for the Dreamliner’s power supply, which had ignited itself.

A few days later, there was another fire in a Boeing 787, this time in the air. Thirty-five minutes after the plane had taken off from Yamaguchi in western Japan, the pilots noticed smoke in the cabin. Their emergency landing at the nearest airport, Takamatsu, may well have prevented a disaster. When there’s a fire on board, things usually get out of control quickly.

During the following months and years, Boeing had to deal with problems caused by Li-ion batteries over and over again. At the same time, reports about cell phones and laptops that self-ignite and burst into flames kept appearing in the media. This increased public awareness of the fact that Li-ion batteries are very powerful, but they also have their pitfalls. In the worst-case scenario, they catch fire.

Danger for waste management facilites

Fires during operation are rare, however, even though they can be devastating on board an aircraft. Li-ion batteries become a much greater danger when their life cycle is over – during collection, disposal and recycling. If the batteries are destroyed in the process, or are unfavourably deformed in such a way that the positive and negative poles touch each other, a thermal runaway reaction can occur, resulting in an uncontrolled exchange of ions and the release of pure oxygen. This self-reinforcing process leads to a fire or explosion that is very difficult to control by conventional means such as water. The best solution would be to cut the air supply and allow the fire to burn in a more or less controlled manner.

Today, the danger posed by Li-ion batteries is becoming ever greater. Until a few years ago, Li-ion batteries were rare in waste management facilities or landfills. But now, more and more of them are reaching the end of their life cycle and need to be disposed of. Global figures do not exist, but in Germany, for example, the number of Li-ion batteries in use tripled between 2009 and 2017 – from 3,300 to 10,000 tonnes – according to the German Federal Environment Agency. By 2025, researchers expect the figures to triple yet again.

Burning vehicles

To properly assess the scale of the problem, in October 2020 a sub-group of the ISWA Working Group on Recycling and Waste Minimisation (WGRWM) embarked on research to determine the effects of this issue internationally and to see whether there were any good practice suggestions that could be adopted from those countries and regions that had addressed this problem most thoroughly. The information in this briefing is based on the findings of the responses that were given in an open-ended questionnaire distributed to members of both the ISWA Recycling and Waste Minimisation and Hazardous Waste Working Groups.

A total of 12 responses were received, with all but three coming from European countries; the three non-European responses were from Canada, the USA and Uruguay. While the survey reports confirmed that Li-ion batteries were perceived as a fire-risk source, few respondents were able to quantify either the scale of the problem or provide evidence of incidents caused by Li-ion batteries. There was one incident of a refuse collection vehicle fleet in East Northamptonshire that was burnt out due to Li-ion batteries, and reports of battery storage and sorting facilities in both France and the UK that were destroyed by fire.

Assessing the scale of the problem is therefore difficult because few countries keep comprehensive records of fires in collection vehicles or at transfer stations, sorting plants and other waste management facilities. A partial survey of its largest members undertaken by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) in the UK reveals the scale of the fire problems in these facilities and the potential contribution of Li-ion batteries to the total number of fires. In the period from April 2019 to March 2020 670 fires were recorded, of which 145 could be attributed directly to Li-ion batteries, and a further 112 incidents occurred where Li-ion batteries were suspected of being the cause of the fire.

Need for care and control

Thomas Nigl and a number of other Austrian researchers examined the results of a survey of recent fire incidents in Austrian waste management facilities, but their research was also extended to incorporate comparable data from two German states, Saxony and North-Rhine Westphalia, and partial data from Sweden and Great Britain. However, Li- ion batteries were not specified within the categorisation of the causes of fires in this article. In their conclusion, the researchers assume that the increase in the number of fires is due to the in- creased presence of Li-ion batteries.

There are therefore good reasons to enhance systems of care and control for the effective disposal of Li-ion batteries, including resource conservation, citizen engagement to ensure proper disposal of their waste, and protection of public health and safety. Because lithium is a raw material that should be re-used from battery packs and then reclaimed from spent batteries, it will become increasingly important to try to retain this raw material in use. While the economic case for doing so in the 2020s is difficult to justify, with the circular economy becoming ever more prominent as a guiding principle for environmental action, recovery of lithium will be critical. To help implement the circular economy, citizens must therefore be encouraged to play their part in separating their waste and sending it on for recycling.

At present, the most pressing need is to reduce the fire risk that results from the careless and inappropriate collection, treatment and processing of Li-ion batteries and ensure batteries are carefully stored and handled. In this context, the introduction of clearer guidance for both citizens and waste handlers is essential.

In the future, extended product liability for Li-ion batteries will be necessary. The distributors of Li-ion batteries must be obliged to dispose of them properly. At the same time, increased efforts will be needed to recover the valuable and limited raw materials contained in Li-ion batteries in an economically viable manner.