Reduce lithium-ion battery fires in waste treatment facilities

Sarah Edwards, CEO of Eunomia, forgave the pun, but the waste and recycling industry has seen an “explosion of incidents in our waste collection and treatment system caused by lithium-ion batteries.”

During an NWRA webinar, the UK-based research and advisory group and Call2Recycle spoke about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and discussed methods that help reduce battery fires.

The impacts of a lithium-ion battery fire not only impact the health and safety of workers. Recycling facilities also inherit a business risk and cost associated with these incidents. Edwards pointed out the increased costs of insurance premiums that accompany the increase in fires. While there were previously 20 insurance providers in the waste and recycling sector, this number has been halved as MRFs take significant risks.

Edwards explained that the cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen 8% over the past ten years.

“Overall, the cost of using lithium-ion batteries has gone down and as a result we see them in a much wider range of consumer products. And these items are kind of built into these products, ”she said.

From smartphones to electric toothbrushes to sung birthday cards, the proliferation of lithium-ion batteries can be seen in a myriad of products. Eventually, batteries come to the end of their useful life and are simply thrown into curbside containers and trash cans. Edwards pointed to “wishcycling,” or the consumer’s expectation that once the item enters the waste stream, it will be recycled, as a factor.

“A lot of people think it’s appropriate to put their electric toothbrush or e-cigarette into their recycling stream thinking it could be recycled,” Edwards said. “And obviously it comes down to a kind of lack of consumer awareness, both in terms of how the industry communicates how their products and packaging should be disposed of at end of life, as well as other things. . “

Sophie Crossette, Eunomia senior consultant spoke about the company’s research in partnership with the Environmental Services Association. The final objective was to understand and quantify the problem of waste fires.

“We know they were happening all the time, and they get scary in some cases, but we have no data,” she said. “So we initially set up our projects with two key objectives. The first was to try to estimate the number of fires. We have to look at the number of garbage fires and then try to attribute the number to the lithium ion. battery fires so that we can begin to understand what they could cost the industry and the economy in general. “

The study attempted to understand the financial burden. Second, Eunomia has targeted international best practices to see which methods have been successful in other countries. The aim was to develop an evidence base on methods that could be used to divert batteries from the trash and get them to the right disposal locations.

“We have chosen to focus on waste collection. Thus, collection vehicles to transfer stations, where waste is handled, processed, stored as opposed to any sort of disposal or sorting facility. electrical appliances, ”Crossette said. “We recognize that there are scrap metal, electrical equipment and scrap issues in the community, but these are also projects in their own right. I’m really into recycling collections by transferring processing. “

The research results, which were widely estimated, found that 48% of waste fires in the UK were attributed to lithium-ion batteries in 2019 and 2020. Eunomia looked at how fires have changed depending on the ‘scale and found the cost to the UK economy to be $ 216 million per year.

“We think the number of fires is too low because of the way we collected the data and the fact that many sites are not reporting it,” she said. “And we think the costs can really be somehow deepened because we don’t know the number. Not everyone is reporting the implications. And so we were pretty sure those numbers were too low.”

Unsurprisingly for them, Eunomia found that 90% of the costs are borne by the site operator. This included the cost associated with business interruptions for property damage and the resources required to deal with an incident. It did not take into account preventive measures such as fire extinguishing systems, detection systems and mechanisms such as firewalls.

“This also does not include the cost of insurance, which as Sarah mentioned increases year on year as waste sites seem a less profitable business to cover in terms of insurance.” she added.

Now that Eunomia had a few numbers to work with, the group made some key recommendations. The first was to ban batteries and small electrical equipment from being thrown into garbage cans and recycling channels. People need to be encouraged and educated on how to properly dispose of items. In addition, they must be provided with “good mechanisms” to dispose of batteries in a proper manner.

“If these steps don’t generate the change we need, we also have a reflection on drs now – deposit systems – to sort of really see if we can increase the number of batteries that are collected for recycling and electrical devices that go through the right groups to make sure they’re not part of our waste streams, which causes us problems when we shovel waste and process it for treatment or recycling, ”Crossette concluded.

This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will summarize the segment of the Call2Recycle webinar, which includes 10 principles for running a consumer battery collection and recycling program.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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