As if their job isn’t hard enough.
Waste management workers are now doubling as first responders — as cellphone batteries, buried in heaps of trash, risk bursting into flames at any given moment.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have quickly become a $37 billion industry standard, according to Allied Market Research, by powering a variety of electronics including mobile phones and tablets, laptops, watches, e-cigarettes and toothbrushes. While billed as more convenient and promoting sustainable lifestyles when compared with conventional battery counterparts, i.e. Duracell and Energizer, they’re also known to be volatile under certain conditions, especially if they are broken, damaged or defected.
And that’s becoming a dangerous problem for the global garbage collections industry.
Jacob Hayler, executive director of the UK’s Environmental Services Association, told the BBC that a “majority” of lithium-ion batteries are tossed in recycling bins — as opposed to especially designated electronic recycling centers, which accept a wide range of electronics using potentially dangerous or toxic components.
“Fires caused by carelessly discarded zombie batteries endanger lives, cause millions of pounds of damage and disrupt waste services,” said Hayler.
Unlike other commonly discarded fire hazards, such as aerosol cans or propane tanks, compact lithium-ion batteries are nearly impossible to spot in a heap of trash — and even the tiny battery that powers a “singing” greeting card is enough to light up. Overall, the number of fires at waste facilities throughout North America have increased by 26% from 2016 to 2019, according to an annual report by fire detection services manufacturer Fire Rover. Ryan Fogelman, the company’s vice president for strategic partnerships, blames the spike on improperly disposed lithium-ion batteries.
Amy Adcox, general manager of Republic Services, a waste processing plant in Plano, Texas, said discarded electronics “keeps me awake at night,” she told the Verge. Her plant has implemented concrete and metal fire walls to prevent flames that begin on their “tipping floor,” where the mountains of garbage are initially dumped by trucks. This is the point where most battery fires begin. Adcox also installed a Fire Rover heat-sensitive camera and an automated foam cannon to put out flames at a distance.
Adcox learned from past disasters. In 2016, a facility in San Mateo County, Calif., endured a four-alarm fire caused by a lithium-ion battery that put the plant out of commission for four months. The fact that they were using a conveyer belt to transport waste throughout the building prompted a thorough fire spread.
Bill Keegan, president of Dem-Con, a Minnesota-based waste and recycling management company, told the Verge, “Nationally we’re losing about a facility a month, burned to the ground by battery fires.”
Lithium-ion batteries function by splitting lithium from its electrons to become lithium ion. As all batteries have a positive and negative charge, the separated electrons are passed from the negative terminal, through the circuits of the smart device, to the positive terminal. At the same time, the lithium ions work to neutralize the charge build-up and keep the chain reaction moving along.
But when a piece of that pathway is damaged, the disproportionate energy build-up can cause overheating.
Certain conditions make lithium-ion batteries susceptible to damage and thus fires, such as charging them in extreme hot or cold climates according to the US Department of Labor website. “Depending on the battery chemistry, size, design, component types, and amount of energy stored in the lithium cell, lithium cell failures can result in chemical and/or combustion reactions, which can also result in heat releases and/or over-pressurization,” it said.
Officials urge electronics users to heed warnings about how and when to charge their batteries, and, especially, where to dispose of them. For example, some electronics and home goods retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy have electronics and battery recycling bins set up in their stores, while some cities provide a service of their own.
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