You may remember the news a couple of years ago when Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphones were overheating and, in some cases, exploding. This PR disaster was the result of problems with the lithium-ion batteries used in the manufacturing of the phone. Over 96% of the phones have been returned, and they are now banned on airplanes.
Although you probably don’t have to worry about phones exploding mid-flight anymore, you might be concerned about fires starting at landfills and recycling facilities as a result of improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries.
Here is a video from Ecomaine of a fire that was caused by a lithium-ion battery:
Quality-made lithium-ion batteries have a failure rate lower than 1 in 10 million, but they’ve made news recently after some reports of landfill fires. Residual charge in a defunct battery can lead to a spark if the battery comes into contact with metal, such as the side of a garbage truck. And this spark can easily set off a fire, especially if it’s at a recycling facility mixed in with materials like paper. According to USA Today, lithium-ion batteries started 65% of California’s waste facilities fires in 2017.
“These [lithium-ion] batteries have a high energy density which allows them to store a large amount of energy in a small amount of space. Like any product, a small number of these batteries are defective. They can overheat, catch fire, or explode,” said Brian O’Connor, a fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Association, in an interview with Distributed Energy last year.
In New York City earlier this year, a lithium-ion battery that ended up at a recycling facility was responsible for a five-alarm fire that burned for two days. The smoke from this fire led to shutdowns on the Long Island Rail Road for hours.
Batteries mixed in with garbage may be crushed and shredded, setting off fires and explosions. Thankfully, most people know that batteries should be disposed of carefully and not simply thrown in with the trash. Stores such as Home Depot, Best Buy, and Lowe’s will recycle lithium-ion batteries that are brought in to any of their locations. One less ideal alternative is to wrap the battery in a plastic bag or cover it with duct tape so that it can’t come into contact with something metallic.
The number of fires at waste and recycling facilities has been on the rise this year. The rates of fire incidents in the months of March, April, and May were the highest on record; while this may not be definitive evidence of a problem, it points to a larger overall trend. Ryan Fogelman of Fire Rover discusses several contributing factors, including increasing numbers of lithium-ion batteries in the wastestream, greater amounts of materials kept in facilities because of the China Waste Ban, and rising daily average temperatures. “We know from the data that drier and hotter weather has a negative effect on the number of fires our facilities face,” comments Fogelman.
How can we work to solve this problem, particularly at MRFs and transfer stations? According to Brent Shows of Advanced Disposal, it’s important to keep the trash moving. In addition, he recommends staying in compliance with regulatory authority, keeping the facility clean and as dust-free as possible, scheduling a fire watch with a local security company, and creating an action plan in the case of a fire event.
Beyond taking these steps to protect a facility and prevent fires, it’s also important to promote public awareness of the dangers of incorrectly disposing of certain items. Fogelman says, “We could stop almost all waste and recycling fires if the end customer […] understood and disposed of their trash properly.”
Previously, it was uncommon for waste management companies to publicize fire-related incidents that happened at their facilities. Now, however, some companies are choosing to share their stories—like the video from Ecomaine above—in hopes of increasing their customers’ awareness of the dangers and also to promote proper recycling practices.
What further steps can we take, both to make facilities safer and to educate the public?