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When Recycling Batteries, Separate First

Because of the different chemistries and designs, it is critical to separate the many different battery types prior to recycling them.

Lithium-ion batteries provide power to all sorts of devices that we use every day, including cell phones, laptop computers, small appliances, handheld power tools, toys, and other consumer devices. It is important to understand that not all batteries are the same. Because of the different chemistries and designs, it is critical to separate the many different battery types prior to recycling them.

Separate Batteries for Safety

The high energy density of lithium-ion batteries makes them ideal for a wide variety of applications. However, this factor also makes these batteries prone to combustion when damaged. A recent EPA report identified a disturbing trend: between 2013 and 2020, lithium batteries caused more than 240 fires at municipal waste facilities across the United States. Most of these fires were caused by smaller batteries, specifically those made for cell phones, laptops, tablets, hoverboards, and e-cigarettes. 

“While generally safe during use, these batteries and the devices that contain them can pose a fire danger when disposed of in household trash and curbside recycling bins,” noted the report. “Municipal waste management and recycling facilities are not designed to receive these types of batteries.”

Disposal of Lithium Batteries

Many consumers are not aware of the proper disposal methods for lithium batteries. To find a certified provider, waste collection facility or electronics recycler that can process used lithium-ion batteries, visit Earth911 or Call2Recycle. And before taking batteries to a recycling location, remember to do the following:

  • If you are unsure if the battery is lead or lithium, look for the words “lithium” or “Li-ion” on the battery label. Lead batteries will have the word “lead” or the symbol “Pb” 
  • Lithium batteries that resemble automotive lead batteries tend to weigh around 25 lbs, while automotive lead batteries weigh around 40 lbs.  
  • Discharge the battery as low as possible to remove energy.  
  • Remove batteries from their devices, if possible.
  • Do not puncture or crush the batteries. This could result in a short circuit or leak.
  • Tape the terminals and bag them individually. 
  • If the batteries are damaged or leaking, store them securely in a plastic bag.
  • Never place lithium-ion batteries in household trash or recycling bins.
Recycling Rates for Batteries

While the recycling rate for lead batteries is 99 percent, only about 5 percent of lithium batteries are recycled. Dedicated recycling programs for lithium batteries not only mitigate the risk of improper disposal but also help meet the increasing demand for usable materials.  

With the shift toward more sustainable energy sources, more lithium-ion batteries are entering the recycling mix from consumer items to EVs to industrial batteries. The consumer-oriented lithium batteries can be properly managed by applying the suggestions outlined above.  Electric cars powered by lithium batteries are becoming more commonplace on the roads today, and lithium is being used in lift trucks and in energy storage systems for renewable energy. When these batteries reach the end of their useful life, it will be equally important to recycle them properly by working with the manufacturer. 

Increased recycling could also help drive down battery costs since raw materials account for over half of the manufacturing costs. By taking the necessary steps to recycle lithium-ion batteries properly, these components can be recovered, processed, and allowed to re-enter the supply chain – continuing the cycle of sustainability and preventing serious fires at the same time.

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