SB 5144, recently passed out of the Senate and is awaiting further action in the House, would establish an extended producer responsibility program for portable and medium-sized batteries, and require a study on how to properly manage large batteries, like those found in electric vehicles. This will provide a consistent system across the state and help county programs both fund and provide for safe battery collection and recycling.
The following article was drafted by Dee Williams, with the Department of Ecology, and Jessica Fischberg, with Clark County Solid Waste. It highlights the challenges and risks solid waste programs encounter. It was published in the winter 2023 issue of the Department of Ecology’s Shoptalk newsletter.
Batteries have become a mainstay in our lives, found in everything from electric cars to cell phones, laptops, cordless tools, and the like. That means there are more used batteries than ever before—batteries that need to be safely stored until they can be recycled, not tossed in the trash or mixed with other recyclables.
What’s the problem?
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of fires at Washington landfills, metal recycling yards, and retail locations with used battery drop-off services. Why? Relatively new, high-energy lithium-ion batteries are finding their way into the waste stream. Unfortunately, these types of batteries can catch fire or explode when they’re damaged or overheated.
A lot of modern electronics use lithium-ion batteries because they’re small, rechargeable, store a lot of power, and are generally safe to use. However, their high energy density makes them more likely to experience thermal runaway when damaged or defective, which leads to a fire or explosion. When thrown into garbage or recycling, they’re likely to be damaged among the tons of waste and heavy equipment. Fires started by lithium-ion batteries are a huge risk to public health and the environment, and they cause significant damage to publicly funded infrastructure.
Though lithium-ion batteries are particularly dangerous, all types of batteries have the potential to start fires if the positive and negative terminals are connected by a conductive material (such as metal). This discharges electricity that can start a fire. Nine-volt batteries are especially susceptible to this, because the two terminals are on the same end of the battery, making it easy for them to touch something conductive.
What can you do?
EPA recently updated its used lithium batteries guide (1), which offers a thorough overview of rules and common sense practices, such as:
- Never put batteries in the trash or with regular recycled items. Even dead batteries have enough energy left to start fires.
- Manage your batteries as universal waste. Universal waste (2) is a dangerous waste category that allows all businesses to handle several common types of dangerous waste under simplified rules. If you manage these materials as universal waste, they aren’t counted toward your generator category or reported on your Dangerous Waste Annual Report.
- Recycle your used batteries using an approved service. 1-800-Recycle (3) is both a hotline and an online tool that connects you or your business to recycling services across Washington.
- There are mail-in recycling options from places like Battery Solutions, Big Green Box, Call2Recycle, Clean Earth, TerraCycle, and Waste Management. The types of batteries eligible for mail-in recycling vary by vendor.
- It may be difficult to remove batteries from certain devices, such as cell phones and tablets; you might need to recycle the entire device. E-Cycle Washington offers small businesses and residents free recycling of specific electronics, including laptops, tablets, and e-readers that may contain batteries.
- Prevent electrical discharge in your battery collections.
- Place each spent battery in a separate plastic bag or container.
- Place non-conductive tape (such as electrical or duct tape) over the battery terminals.
Place damaged, defective, or recalled batteries in sand or kitty litter. A damaged battery may appear cracked, bloated, puffy, or swollen. You can get kits for disposing of damaged batteries from hazardous waste management companies and battery recycling vendors.
By Dee Williams & Jessica Fischberg