Batteries of different colours

Discarded batteries causing hundreds of fires at waste centres

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Batteries thrown in household rubbish bins cause around 700 fires a year in dustcarts and waste-processing centres, local authorities have said.

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are responsible for around 48 per cent of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year, costing waste operators, fire services and the environment approximately £158m annually, according to research published by Eunomia.

Hidden "zombie batteries" can be found in a wide range of household devices, from phones and laptops, to power tools, children's toys, e-bikes and scooters, and even vape devices. 

When thrown away with the general rubbish, or mixed with other recycling, these batteries can easily become damaged and ignite, setting fire to dry, flammable waste and recycling around them.

Although the Eunomia research estimated that just over 200 fires at UK recycling and waste management facilities are caused by batteries each year, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) considers this number to be an underestimate, according to their conversations with local authorities. 

The organisation's informal reporting suggests that the annual number of battery fires could be three times higher than Eunomia's estimate, with hundreds more fires occurring in recycling and waste management facilities and collection vehicles.

To address this issue, the ESA has today re-launched the national 'Take Charge' campaign, with the aim of reversing the growing trend of battery fires by encouraging consumers to recycle batteries responsibly. 

The campaign messaging urges consumers to only recycle batteries, and electronic devices containing batteries, using specialist recycling services. It also reminds the public to never throw batteries away among general rubbish or other recycling by drawing attention to the fire risk.

“Since we first launched Take Charge in 2020, the number of battery fires at recycling and waste facilities, unfortunately, seems to have risen considerably and is affecting all operators in the sector - not helped by the tinder-dry conditions caused by the heatwave this summer," said Jacob Hayler, executive director, ESA. 

"We urge everyone to please recycle batteries and electronic devices responsibly and help us stop waste batteries from becoming zombies.”

Lithium-ion batteries are the main type of rechargeable battery found in portable consumer electronics. They consist of two electrodes divided by a separator that allows charged particles - lithium ions - to flow through a solvent from one to the other.

Recharging the battery pushes the ions back to where they started. This can generally be done safely, but if the electrodes make direct contact with each other it can cause all the charged particles to suddenly discharge in an explosion, which, as the chemicals inside the battery are flammable, can quickly cause a fire.

To date, much of the focus on preventing waste fires has been directed on improved controls and infrastructure at waste sites. However, the authors of the Eunomia research have stressed the need to focus on upstream interventions to divert batteries and WEEE products from the mixed waste stream to tackle these safety and environmental risks. 

“We know that residents are keen to recycle and sometimes this results in the wrong things ending up in the wrong place," said Sam Horne, chair of the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO). 

"Unfortunately, where this includes batteries being placed in the residual or recycling streams, it can have serious implications. It puts the lives of staff working in facilities at risk as well as the facilities themselves.”

To reduce these fires, the report identified several possible solutions that could remove lithium-on batteries from waste streams. Suggested solutions include banning these batteries from the residual and mixed recycling waste streams; introducing a deposit-return scheme (DRS) for batteries, and making battery manufacturers pay for the costs of dealing with any fires their products cause.

Respondents to a survey carried out by the BBC among local authorities, fire services and waste management companies found the organisations were supportive of these measures, with 66 per cent backing separate kerbside collections for lithium-ion batteries, 65 per cent supporting a DRS and 42 per cent backing a ban on the disposal of these batteries in general waste.

Laura Fisher, from waste-management company FCC Environment, said: "The best thing is for people to bring any batteries to their local recycling centre or to any major supermarket - most of them tend to have a recycling bin for batteries there."

In July 2022, a huge fire in a London high-rise prompted firefighters to issue an urgent warning about the risk of fires involving the lithium batteries of converted e-bikes. Last year, there were more than 100 fires in the capital involving lithium-ion batteries, the fire brigade said. 

In light of the risks, fire safety experts and electrical-waste campaigners have also called for clearer rules on the safe disposal of batteries, including how to recycle them, although a government consultation on this issue has been delayed until 2023.

In the meantime, the non-profit organisation Material Focus, which surveyed local authorities, has created an online search tool to help people find their nearest recycling point.

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