Discarded batteries a growing fire risk for garbage handlers

Published 5:58 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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By Dan Gunderson

Rechargeable lithium ion batteries are showing up more frequently in garbage. As a result, local officials say they are causing more fires at waste handling sites.

“In the last month we’ve had two fires. Both have been caused by improper disposal of batteries. We run them over with the equipment and they burst into flames,” said Clay County Solid Waste Manager Corey Bang.

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A quick thinking worker recently used a backhoe to prevent a fire in a pile of garbage at the facility.

“The loader operator actually saw the battery, grabbed it with the hoe and got it out in the middle of the floor,” said Bang.

“As he was moving it, it burst into flame about the size of a basketball,” Bang continued. “It was a white hot fire when it went off.”

Becker County Environmental Services Director Steve Skoog shares the concern. He said a recent addition to the county recycling facility was done in part because of the need for a new fire suppression system to protect the facility.

He has also seen batteries erupt into flames at the county solid waste transfer station.

“One time it was after hours and we had some waste left over on the tipping floor. It started a fire,” said Skoog. ”It caused a lot of heat damage to the building and smoke damage.”

Skoog said that fire cost the county more than $800,000.

The official cause was “undetermined” but Skoog said a battery was the likely culprit.

But the information about battery related fires is anecdotal because Minnesota doesn’t track fires caused by batteries, according to the state Fire Marshal’s office.

“Just looking at the raw numbers, there’s many, many more fires at solid waste facilities and recycling facilities,” said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hazardous waste coordinator Joshua Burman.

While there is no data to support a link between increased fires and rechargeable batteries, the correlation “is strongly suggestive,” said Burman.

If lithium ion batteries are physically damaged, improperly charged or they short circuit when mixed with other batteries they can burn explosively, a process called thermal runaway.

Even a small lithium ion battery can burn at more than two-thousand degrees.

“It also produces lots of fairly nasty off-gases as part of that burning process, which is both an environmental risk and of course an immediate public health and safety risk to anybody in the vicinity,” said Burman.

At the Clay County Household Hazardous Waste recycling facility, batteries fill a 55 gallon drum each month. Julie Kennedy spends a lot of time trying to safely recycle batteries.

“Because each battery has to be wrapped up separately by itself, “ she explained.

She places cell phone and computer batteries in plastic bags. Smaller batteries need to be wrapped in clear tape. That’s a federal rule designed to prevent fires when recycled lithium ion batteries are transported. She sometimes spends hours wrapping batteries in tape.

Clay County currently won’t accept larger batteries from e-bikes or scooters because of the safety risk.

According to a state report, the most commonly recycled battery type in 2021 and 2022 was lithium ion, with 46,577 pounds in 2021 and 65,528 pounds in 2022, an increase of 29 percent. The report noted that data is consistent with market trends “as consumers upgrade to devices powered by lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries.”

And manufacturers sometimes make recycling batteries a challenge. Kennedy once had to use a hammer to smash an electric razor before she could get the battery out. Someone recently brought in a hoverboard with a bad battery.

“I spent a half hour on line looking how to change a battery on a hoverboard,” she said.

Her experience is far from unique.

“I have been given the message from many programs that they feel overwhelmed, that they they don’t have the staff, or the space, and they’re receiving many, many, many more batteries than they ever did before,” said Burman.

Some battery manufacturers have recycling programs. But they’re often difficult for consumers to find and Burman says there aren’t enough recycling locations around the state. County programs vary by location, another source of confusion for consumers.

“A goal for the MPCA would certainly be a consistent statewide approach,” said Burman.

While Minnesota has good battery handling regulations for businesses, Burman called the law on consumer battery recycling outdated.

“Lithium ion batteries had just barely been invented when that law was written,” he said. “These things had just been invented and they were a laboratory curiosity at the time.”

County officials and the MPCA are working on legislation to help address the risk from lithium ion batteries and expect it to be introduced later this session.

“More and more energy is being placed in smaller and smaller packages,” said Burman. “We love that convenience. It’s making our lives better. But the downside is the risk goes up as well.”