Sarah Taddeo and Maggie Gilroy, New York State Team
- Lithium batteries have caused a number of fires and explosions in consumer products and at recycling plants in the U.S.
- Recycling facilities take a number of precautions to identify and dismantle battery-containing devices before they cause a problem.
- Consumers should never throw them out or try to remove a battery from a device themselves.
Within his first few months working at a western New York recycling plant, Matt Plummer got a taste of how quickly a run-in with a lithium ion battery can go south.
Plummer was handling a pliable battery smaller than a Post-It note at his desk; it likely came from an iPad or similar device. He noticed a small hole in the thin casing. Then he noticed the small sparks crackling underneath.
“What you don’t want to do is penetrate layer to layer. That’s when you start to have a problem,” he said, quickly taking the battery outside to a metal bin, and, in the process, bending it ever so slightly.
It immediately started smoking and then caught fire. Plummer left it inside the bin to burn out.
“This is the problem at these facilities that are full of plastics and cardboard,” said Plummer. “(The battery) can be so hot that it can catch anything around it on fire.”
Lithium batteries have raised concern across New York state and the nation after they’ve started fires at recycling plants or other locations.
A crushed lithium battery or smartphone likely caused a massive blaze earlier this month at a recycling plant in Tioga County, near Binghamton, according to Taylor Garbage, which jointly operates the facility with Southern Tier Recyclers, Inc.
Flames ripped through cubes of recyclable material as firefighters trucked water to the rural location. The fire burned for days and while no one was killed or injured, the building is a total loss.
What you need to know about lithium batteries
Matt Plummer, director of operations at Sunnking, stands in the middle of the electronics recycler’s 204,000-square-foot facility in Brockport, New York. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York)
Plummer, meanwhile, has a behind-the-scenes look at how the batteries are identified and discarded by recycling workers specially trained to do so.
He is the director of operations at Sunnking, a private facility in Brockport, Monroe County, near Rochester, that collects and sorts electronics from residential consumers and businesses. The company resells items that are in good shape and dismantles others for further recycling or disposal.
Sunnking processes about 25 million pounds of electronic scrap annually.
Tioga County’s Office of Emergency Services has not identified the fire’s cause and said the incident is still under investigation; the Apalachin Fire Department has only concluded the fire was accidental.Get the News Alerts newsletter in your inbox.
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More: Taylor Garbage Apalachin recycling plant a total loss from fire, Fire Chief says
It is not the only time the batteries have caused massive fires.
An improperly tossed battery caused a five-alarm fire at a recycling plant in Queens in early 2018, and a number of garbage trucks across the country have fallen prey to fires from stray batteries tossed onto the pile as they drive through neighborhoods.
Lithium batteries have also been the culprits behind exploding or spontaneously combusting consumer devices in recent years, including e-cigarettes, hoverboards and Samsung Galaxy Note smartphones. Some owners lost their lives or were severely burned when their products suddenly caught fire while they were using them.
The batteries also pose concerns for airlines, with the fear they could be crushed if dropped under a seat.
So how do recycling plants protect themselves from the destructive power of a battery that’s typically no bigger than a coffee mug?
And what should consumers know about handling and disposing of their lithium-battery containing items safely and responsibly?
One thing’s for sure: You probably have a lot of lithium batteries hanging around your household, and in five years, you’ll probably have more.
The rechargeable ones, called lithium ion batteries, or the disposable ones, called lithium batteries, are in everything from smartphones to robotic vacuum cleaners to earbud headphones.
And most of the time, they’re safe while housed inside these devices.
An iPhone or laptop would not exist without these batteries, explained M. Stanley Whittingham, a distinguished professor in chemistry and materials science and engineering at Binghamton University.
He was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his pioneering research that led to the development of the lithium-ion battery.
“All these batteries are called intercalation batteries. It’s like putting jam in a sandwich. In the chemical terms, it means you have a crystal structure, and we can put lithium ions in, take them out, and the structure’s exactly the same afterwards,” Whittingham said in a 2015 interview.
“That’s what makes these lithium batteries so good, allows them to cycle for so long.”
But if certain batteries are damaged and exposed to air or other metals, that could be all it takes for them to go into “thermal runaway” and a resulting fire could be severe.
“They’re fast and furious, and they burn hot,” Plummer said.
More: 2019 Nobel Prize winner: Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham talks award, impact, batteries
When a battery goes bad
Brian Donnelly, solids and hazardous waste facility technician for Broome County, shows a trailer filled with collected electronics at the Broome County Landfill. The county offers free household hazardous waste and electronics recycling at the landfill on designated recycling days. (Photo: Kate Collins / Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin)
At a facility like Sunnking, where electronics of all types are piled across a vast 204,000-square-foot warehouse, employees have to be meticulous in identifying battery-containing devices and funneling them to safe areas for reuse or disposal.
One employee might go through hundreds of different devices per day.
“Every day it’s a new puzzle,” said Plummer. “Like, ‘We’ve never seen one of these before, so how do we get in and deal with it appropriately?’”
If a battery starts to go bad, Sunnking workers have a variety of industry tricks under their belt, like special fire extinguishers, sand or mineral oil, which can stop what they call a “thermal event,” or fire.
They also use plastic tools instead of metal ones to pry batteries from smartphones and tablets to reduce the likelihood of battery puncture.
When Whittingham worked to develop the lithium-ion battery 45 years ago, he faced challenges with the battery catching fire when it was opened.
Since then, efforts have been made to make the batteries safer.
“We want to increase the energy, but we want to make them safe at the same time,” Whittingham said in an interview earlier this month. “So there’s some research particularly on solid state batteries where they think they may be safer.”
Ben Hayes, Sunnking’s mobile electronics repair technician, uses a plastic tool to pull the adhesive out from beneath a lithium-ion battery in an iPhone. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York)
Whittingham said most of the onus on ensuring a battery’s safety falls on the device’s owner.
“They have to recognize that these devices have energy in them,” Whittingham said.
“People need to understand the hazards of these things, and it’s not just batteries, it’s everything electronic.”
Sunnking mobile electronics repair technician Ben Hayes works in a corner of the Sunnking facility, where his desk is full of stacks of smartphones.
Hayes’ job is to delicately dismantle these phones to get at the batteries and other components.
An iPhone takes him about 10 minutes to take apart; an iPad? 45 minutes.
He must carefully remove adhesives, screws and panels, all while watching for signs of the battery going rogue.
“With the iPads, you’re working with a battery the same thickness as on an iPhone, but a lot wider. So it’s definitely a concern of bending at that point,” said Hayes.
Electronic device manufacturers in New York state required to offer recycling options at no cost to consumers (businesses or nonprofits with more than 50 employees have to pay,) partially in an effort to keep metals and other materials from getting into area waters and soil.
What consumers should know
The Broome County Landfill, located on Knapp Road in Binghamton, offers free household hazardous waste and electronics recycling at the landfill on designated recycling days. (Photo: Kate Collins / Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin)
You might have an old phone or tablet in your desk drawer that you’ve yet to dispose of, and you probably don’t know what to do with it. Here’s what to do — and what NOT to do.
DON’T throw battery-containing devices in the trash
Trashing electronics is illegal in New York.
And you don’t want to be the person that chucks a battery into your garbage that eventually causes a fire in the garbage truck that patrols your neighborhood.
DO bring lithium battery-containing devices to a collection site or event, or your local electronics store
Research centers in your area and take your old electronic toys, rechargeable vacuums, computers and phones there.
These facilities, or maybe your local municipality, hold collection events regularly where consumers can bring their items for reuse or disposal. You can also bring electronics to your local electronics store, like a Best Buy location.
Some facilities that process plastics, metals and other recycled materials may accept electronic recyclables, but they often have to transport them somewhere else to be processed.
For a list of certified recycling facilities in New York state, go to www.dec.ny.gov.
DON’T attempt to remove a battery yourself
The average consumer doesn’t know how to remove a battery safely, especially if there are adhesives or tricky dismantling procedures involved, said Plummer. Bring your items to the professionals.
DO treat your batteries well, and watch for signs of a bad battery
If your smartphone is separating at the seams, that’s probably not the screws coming loose — it’s the battery inflating inside, which is bad news, said Plummer.
Keep battery-containing devices out of high heat, and, if you’re transporting loose lithium or lithium ion batteries with metal contacts on them, it’s a good idea to cover those metal areas with clear tape. If they touch other metal surfaces, you may have a short circuit situation.
Your single-use, alkaline batteries — think AAA, AA and 9-volts — have occasionally caused fires as well. If you’re unsure which battery you’re working with, tape up the ends just in case.
DON’T worry about your data security on recycled devices
Many recycling plants have special certifications in reusing or disposing of electronic waste, which include data security procedures, said Plummer.
That means they’ll wipe the data off your phones or computers or destroy the data-containing drives or components before sending the devices out for reuse or disposal.
Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network’s New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses. Got a story tip or comment?
Source: Pressconnects (USA Today)