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.
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.
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.
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.