Lithium Ion batteries
Photo from Recycling Today Photo Archive

Organizations provide EPA with best practices for lithium battery recycling

ISRI, NWRA and SWANA say the EPA should consider developing best practices and labeling guidelines to include batteries of all sizes and chemistries, among other things.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the Voice of the Recycling Industry™, National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), and Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) issued a joint letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan citing best practices for safe recycling and labeling of lithium batteries. The letter is in response to the EPA’s Request for Information on develping best practices for collecting batteries to be recycled and voluntary battery labeling guidelines.  

The three groups say lithium batteries power everything from electronic devices to onboard automobile systems. However, the increased usage poses serious fire risks and safety challenges for consumers and the recycling industry.   

“It is imperative that a clear path is delineated for the responsible recycling of batteries,” says ISRI President Robin Wiener. “By joining together to provide comments to the EPA, our organizations are offering solid solutions to minimize the risks of fire and injury that occur in recycling operations.”   

The letter states fire hazards are increasing as more lithium-ion batteries improperly placed in curbside residential waste or recycling collection containers and bags. Once in the recycling or waste stream, these batteries become fire risks as they get mixed with tons of materials and placed in hot temperatures under significant compression.  

Even when taken to an appropriate battery collection facility, fires remain a risk. The advantage is that a facility will handlethe batteries to minimize the risk of the fire starting and spreading, unlike in a landfill, material recovery facility (MRF), transfer station or collection vehicle. Regardless, this is still an ongoing concern for any facility that collects batteries in bulk, according to the letter.  

Development of guidance for battery collection facility staff to identify batteries by chemistry, separate and handle them appropriately, and how to handle them in case of damage or fire would be useful to help minimize the risk of catastrophic fire. Education for those handling the batteries would be useful for many communities that manage their own battery collection.  

“SWANA is very concerned about the continued uptick in fires at recycling facilities and other disposal sites, often caused by lithium-ion batteries,” says David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO. “These fires threaten workers’ lives and operations at these facilities and undercut EPA’s ambitious National Recycling Strategy. We can’t recycle discarded items at a burnt-up MRF.”  

The group says the only way to identify and detect these batteries is visual, so there is no easy method to screen the batteries out of the incoming loads. Commingling with recyclables, consisting of plastic and paper that provides a significant quantity of readily combustible material, magnifies the problem.  

Due to risks batteries have in curbside recycling and in household waste, batteries are best managed at dedicated drop-off sites. For battery collection to be effective, it needs to be convenient and safe, according to the letter. The group suggests the EPA should consider including convenience standards for battery drop-off locations as part of its best practices.  

The letter also points out the need for a strong, ongoing public information campaign to alert consumers on how to properly dispose of batteries.   

While most of these fires stem from the mismanagement of consumer lithium batteries, larger batteries such as those in electric vehicles also pose risks. The organizations recommended that the EPA develop best practices and labeling guidelines to include batteries of all sizes and chemistries. They also advised the EPA to proceed with a parallel track for best practices and labeling of the larger lithium-ion batteries.   

“Our goal is to lower the risk of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries,” says Darrell Smith, NWRA president and CEO. “We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments. We believe our recommendations will help reduce fires caused by these batteries at our recycling facilities.”