Lithium Battery Fires Threaten the Existence of Recycling

As more and more communities mandate recycling, there is an ever increasing number of devices being thrown into recycling bins that contain lithium batteries.

In September 2016 a four alarm fire broke out at the Shoreway Environmental Center outside of San Francisco. The fire caused $6+ million in damage and caused the plant to shut down for more than four months, requiring them to layoff 70 employees.

Based on public records obtained by Motherboard, the fire broke out at 8:22 pm. The staff discovered the fire within a minute and attempted to put it out with water and fire extinguishers, but within five minutes, they realized that the fire was getting larger, abandoned attempts to put it out and evacuated the facility.

Around a hundred firefighters fought the fire for hours and a large part of the facility was destroyed.

Motherboard’s FOIA request said that the source of the fire was eventually determined to be an improperly recycled lithium-ion battery.

Unfortunately, traditional firefighting tools like water and foam do not react well with lithium. In fact, lithium reacts with water and produces lithium hydroxide and also hydrogen. Remember the Hindenburg? That’s kind of what happens.

Since the fire above, that recycling plant has had 47 more fires. 45 of them were said to be caused by lithium ion batteries.

There are numerous reports of these types of fires.

As we use more and more consumer electronics and all of those electronics have batteries in them and many of those are not disposed of properly, the risk of fires goes up.

Doug Kobold, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council says “Every (Materials Recycling Facility) MRF, pretty much, in California is experiencing fires, if not on a daily basis, on a weekly basis,”. He said “We’re on the fringe of losing our recycling infrastructure that we’ve built over several decades to try and recycle this stuff.” 

A UPS cargo plane even caught fire and crashed as a result of batteries, causing the government to require these huge warning labels on any box that is shipped, even if it has a small lithium battery in .

This problem is likely to get worse as we consume and get rid of more electronic toys.

I think it is unlikely that consumers will somehow become more aware of this risk and dispose of batteries more safely, but, I am afraid, we are going to have to do something to reduce the risk. Not sure what.

Credit: Motherboard

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