Around the world, garbage trucks and recycling centers are going up in flames. The root of the problem: volatile lithium-ion batteries sealed inside electronics from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and more. They’re not only dangerous but also difficult to take apart — making e-waste less profitable, and contributing to a growing recycling crisis. These days, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are in smartphones, tablets, laptops, ear buds, toys, power tools, scooters, hoverboards and e-cigarettes.
For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain Cobalt and when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached.
Old devices end up in trouble when we throw them in the trash, stick them in the recycling bin, or even responsibly bring them to an e-waste center. Since the spring of 2018 alone, batteries have been suspected as the cause of recycling fires in New York, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. In California, a recent survey of waste management facilities found 83 percent had at least one fire over the last two years, of which 40 percent were caused by lithium-ion batteries.
When batteries spark other material, the result can be catastrophic. In 2016, the Shoreway Environmental Center that serves Silicon Valley suffered a 4-alarm fire it suspects was caused by a lithium-ion battery that went undetected amid other junk in its sorting systems. The fire damage cost $8.5 million.