Ask anyone in the waste and recycling industry about fire incidents, and they likely will recall a fire on the tipping floor at a material recovery facility (MRF) or an explosion inside a collection truck caused by a lithium-ion battery. The frequency of fires ignited by lithium-ion batteries has prompted many recyclers to dedicate resources not only to public outreach but also to a combination of measures designed to prevent fires at facilities.
At the MRF, operators use infrared cameras and other monitoring technology, training programs and automated foam dispensers that extinguish fires before they can become a major incident. Companies also are turning to municipalities and nonprofits for assistance in education outreach efforts to address this issue at the collection stage.
On Phoenix-based Republic Services’ recycling education website, https://recyclingsimplified.com, for example, the company informs residential and commercial customers that “electronics, batteries and lightbulbs cannot go into your recycling container and require special handling” and directs residents to check local programs for disposal options.
“We’ve been helping to form a narrative with expanded public education around the inherent risk and dangers of these types of batteries,” says Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services. “We’re trying to broadcast those types of materials don’t belong in recyclable or municipal solid waste streams. They should be taken to appropriate recycling facilities or national takeback programs at big-box stores.”
Many MRFs have successfully reduced fires by working with nonprofits, including Atlanta-based Call2Recycle, to separate and collect batteries before they enter the recycling stream. Through the program, Call2Recycle has recycled millions of batteries per year. However, the business of collecting batteries is not without risk.
A precautionary tale
Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, says the nonprofit had to double its safety efforts after a fire incident on a FedEx truck in 2017. The organization now requires MRFs, municipalities and retailers participating in the program to complete a free online safety training module.
“Anyone that handles a great amount of waste has had some sort of incident with a lithium-ion battery,” Smith says. “The phenomena we and the MRFs face is, increasingly, lithium-based batteries are embedded in products [and] are not intended to be removed by the consumer. The best example is an electronic toothbrush. When consumers take those out, those batteries are damaged. Those damaged batteries are one of the big things we see in our program that cause some of the safety incidents.”
A growing number of fires that was tied to damaged batteries convinced Call2Recycle to launch a pilot program aimed at reducing battery-related incidents.
Last year, Call2Recycle’s Avoid the Spark campaign in five counties in the Bay Area of California exposed consumers to the realities MRFs face when batteries are improperly disposed of. In California, Smith says, one of the main issues is batteries being placed in curbside recycling bins.
“They assume, ‘I have a recycling program, I can put it in curbside recycling,’” Smith says. “Recycling done well can reduce safety incidences, but just recycling for recycling’s sake oftentimes brings as much problems as it does virtue.”
The Avoid the Spark campaign resulted in a 90 percent reduction of “at-risk” collection boxes returned to Call2Recycle. The pilot proved “if you have an integrated effort, you can reduce safety incidences,” Smith says. However, the challenge is finding the funds to achieve broader consumer outreach and to roll out a battery recycling campaign nationwide, he says.
Being a local leader
Marin Household Hazardous Waste Facility, San Rafael, California, is one of the facilities that participates in the Call2Recycle program, collecting batteries from the county and shipping them to Call2Recycle. The facility also participated in the Avoid the Spark campaign last year.
Marin decided to build a permanent household hazardous waste (HHW) facility after seeing the results from a survey done by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The survey found that hundreds of tons of HHW ended up at the transfer station and landfill each year. Before the facility was built, a series of fire incidents in waste and recycling trucks also occurred, says Kathy Wall, program manager at Marin.
Wall is originally from Colombia, where she says she observed people improperly disposing of hazardous items at dump sites. In California, residents also dispose of lithium-ion batteries improperly, which can cause facility and truck fires.
“The main reason we decided to be a part of the campaign and to keep working with Call2Recycle is the majority of people believe the main hazard with batteries is the toxic chemicals in them, but the truth is the main hazard for us is the fire issue,” Wall says. “We know that facilities in California have been experiencing these fires because of lithium-ion batteries. We don’t want to wait until we have a fire to do something about it.”
When Wall first started researching Call2Recycle’s program, she learned it also would reduce recycling and disposal costs for the county.
“Anyone that handles a great amount of waste has had some sort of incident with a lithium-ion battery.” – Carl Smith, CEO and president, Call2Recycle
“At the time, we were paying to recycle rechargeable and single-use batteries, and batteries are very expensive to recycle,” Wall says. “I started to learn there were programs that accepted batteries. I pulled information on how much we were paying for shipping and battery recycling for three years. I found out how much the Call2Recycle program would save us.”
The program has not only reduced costs for the facility, it also has expanded outreach efforts in the county. A component of the Call2Recycle program calls for participants to create education outreach materials for the community. Wall says she was inspired to create her own collection boxes with information on how and why to recycle batteries and where to find local drop-off locations. The education materials were distributed in Spanish as well to serve California’s diverse population.
“You need to really understand who the local communities are who can support you to promote your program,” she says. “Sometimes, we feel we need a lot of money and we need to do it all, but there are already a lot of nonprofit organizations that are interested in doing their part. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Her advice for MRFs or facilities considering working with a nonprofit on a battery recycling program is to understand “how it’s going to affect your operations,” she says. “You can save money on shipping and recycling costs, but is it going to require new labor or new training?”
Wall says having an HHW facility has been imperative to keeping batteries and other hazardous items out of the waste and recycling stream in Marin County.
“We operate five days a week,” Wall says. “We serve approximately 120 residents per day, as well as 25 to 30 small businesses throughout the month. We collect about 500 tons per year, so we’re diverting a lot of electronic scrap and household batteries from the landfill.”
Although the Marin facility has never had a major fire, Wall says she has learned from fires across California and the country. It also won Call2Recycle’s Leadership in Sustainability award last year.
Beyond consumer education, Smith says MRFs and facilities must have practical solutions to reduce battery-related fire incidents. For Call2Recycle, that meant creating a flame-retardant liner that goes inside every Call2Recycle collection box.
“One of the imperative parts of our program that’s saved us is the flame-retardant liner in our collection box,” he says. “We would have had a lot of issues with our collection program if we didn’t have that in place. It’s a liner that goes into our box that prevents the types of accidents we’ve seen. We know it’s worked because we routinely get back burnt boxes.”
Smith adds, “The issue with these batteries is not going away. Lithium-ion batteries are going to be with us a long time, and sooner or later all of us must figure out the best way to deal with them. There’s no silver bullet on the horizon that’s going to stop all of this from happening. Like anything, prevention is the key.”