Stop Throwing Cellphone Batteries in the Trash, You're Firebombing Garbage Trucks

Illustration for article titled Stop Throwing Cellphone Batteries in the Trash, Youre Firebombing Garbage Trucks
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It can be difficult to figure out what to do with your old electronics when you’re ready to move on from them, but here is one thing you should definitely not do: throw them in the trash. Discarded devices powered by lithium-ion batteries are basically fire bombs waiting to explode on unsuspecting sanitation workers.

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According to a report from USA Today, thrown out lithium-ion batteries were responsible for 65 percent of waste facilities fires in California last year. The flames can be a challenge to put out as well, because when one battery bursts, other dormant batteries may explode from the flames.

A huge drop-off in cost for the batteries in recent years has made lithium-ion batteries more affordable for makers of consumer devices. They are found in most smartphones, laptops, power tools, and even cars. Lithium-ion batteries now account for about 70 percent of the rechargeable battery market in the US.

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That might be great for people using the devices, but it’s been a cause of growing concern for waste workers who have to interact with them. When simply tossed in the trash or even recycling bins, the batteries can produce disastrous effects.

Per USA Today, a discarded lithium-ion battery was the cause of a five-alarm fire at a recycling facility in Queens, New York. earlier this year. The fire burned for two days, and the billows of black smoke from the flames caused four branches of the Long Island Rail Road to shut down for several hours. Last year, unsuspecting sanitation workers in New York City experienced an explosion in the back of a garbage truck when a trashed battery blew up after being compacted.

The issue has grown so pervasive that California has launched an entire awareness campaign just to alert consumers not to inadvertently bomb their friendly neighborhood trash collectors.

Most folks believe they can simply toss such batteries, especially when they can seemingly no longer hold a charge, but it doesn’t take much for lithium-ion batteries to create a spark. If the battery’s terminal—electrical contacts that send power from the battery to a device—come in contact with something metallic like, say, a garbage truck, this can create a closed circuit and produce an electrical charge. All it takes is one spark, especially in a recycling truck filled with paper and other burnable materials, to start a massive blaze.

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There are ways to properly dispose of lithium-ion batteries without running the risk of being responsible for starting a trash fire. Some cities like San Francisco have special battery recycling programs, so check for local initiatives first. Home Depot, Lowes, and Best Buy locations offer to properly recycle the batteries.

If you need to throw the batteries out yourself, Call2Recycle recommends you put them in a plastic bag to prevent them from coming into contact with metal. Definitely do not put them in the trash, as they will get crushed or shredded and likely explode—unless you have some sort of weird thing against your trash collector. But even then, you should probably just dispose of the batteries properly.

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[USA Today]

Nights and weekends editor, Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

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The most frequent problem is that one cell in a series of cells will fail to charge, but all the rest will be fully charged. It only requires the use of a cheap voltmeter to detect this. Where I worked they used NiMH AA cells in a camera and would just let them roast on a charger all day, they would be uncomfortably hot. I took a voltmeter to the bunch and found that one was bad. Swapped in a new one and instead of 10 minutes of use they got hours.

When charging a battery or individual cell, it should remain cool to the touch through almost the entire process - the current should be going into reversing the chemical reaction, not into producing heat. It’s only at the very end when the majority of the chemicals have been converted that they will warm. Some chargers and some cells have temp sensors to detect this to stop the charge, but most are looking for a spike in voltage, which may not happen if the cell is defective.

It’s worse in laptop batteries because the makers work very hard to prevent the consumer from accessing the cells and because they refuse to add appropriate charge detection on the individual cells. Were it done correctly the pack would have it’s own self-inerting cycle when it found a cell has gone bad. This would add maybe $2 to the cost of the $150 Li-Ion pack; 25 cents for the detection circuit, $1 for the wiring, and 75 cents to the heatsink to drain the power into.

Easy solutions that won’t happen:

1) Congress mandates the USPS to accept Li-Ion laptop batteries for transport.
Good side - the USPS visits nearly every location most every day and is in the transport business
Problem - who pays for it and where do the batteries go from there? What happens when a load of them is concentrated in a Post Office and catches fire?

2) Grocery stores accept Li-Ion batteries
Good side - people need to eat and grocery stores get visits from most households once a week
Problems - same as USPS

3) Trash haulers set up some collection method that segregates batteries
Good side - they are already getting the cells, but they are mixed in. Stopping that mixing would solve the problem
Problems - it’s hard enough to get people to separate for recycling; now this?

So, until battery makers make packs that are self-inerting it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to stop them catching fire in the trucks.