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Lithium-Ion Battery Disposal: How to Handle Defective Lithium-Ion Batteries

Handle with caution: if you’re looking to dispose of a defective lithium-ion battery, there’s a safe, responsible way to do so to protect your people and the environment. 

Across industries, companies are investing in custom storage cabinets and other safety solutions to counter the operational risks associated with lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. But it’s not just your operational batteries you need to watch out for. To put it another way, these risks don’t go away when your batteries reach the end of their life. A defective battery put out to pasture needs special considerations of its own to protect the people handling it.

“In safety terms [lithium-ion batteries] have a ‘poor press’ in the light of recent fires. These included [...] fires during waste disposal operations.” The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, ‘Lithium batteries and their safe storage, transport, use and disposal, including re-use and re-cycling

With the increasing use of these batteries, the issue of proper disposal has become a major safety and environmental concern. In this week’s article, learn all about the risks involved and how to manage them to keep your people, your premises, and the environment safe.

Click to download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for Li-ion batteries.

The risks surrounding lithium-ion battery disposal 

It should come as no surprise that batteries are harmful to the environment if not disposed of correctly. But different battery types pose different risks. What issues surround Li-ion batteries?

For one, Li-ion batteries are non-biodegradable. Yes, they have a generous lifespan, made longer by your ability to recharge them, but the uptake of this technology is such that if every company using Li-ion batteries to power their operations threw them out with the rest of their general waste when they became defective, it would quickly add up.

This, in turn, can lead to toxic chemicals leaching into the soil and water, causing serious health hazards to both humans and animals. 

Perhaps the biggest risk is that of thermal runaway. Because we’re talking about defective batteries, this risk is heightened, meaning the batteries you’re throwing away could actually catch fire or explode. It’s crucial to ensure that these batteries are disposed of properly through safe, manufacturer-approved methods to reduce the risk of this happening.

“If waste is improperly processed or disposed to landfill, the batteries can catch fire below the surface of the landfill. Landfill fires can burn for a long period and are very difficult to extinguish.” The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, ‘Lithium batteries and their safe storage, transport, use and disposal, including re-use and re-cycling

How to tell if your batteries are defective

Aside from your battery simply not working anymore, there are several ways you can tell if it is damaged and has become defective. 

“Lithium batteries start to decompose and vent or ‘gas-off’ at the end of their useful life causing swelling of the battery case,” writes the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). “If this heating starts as a result of impact damage, such as in waste collection, handling or waste processing machinery internal damage could occur, and the battery could spontaneously start a ‘runaway reaction’,” highlighting the risks of improper disposal. 

As well as swelling, general signs that your battery has reached its end of life include:

  • Cracking
  • Hissing
  • Leaking
  • Rising temperature
  • Smoking before use

For more information about defective Li-ion batteries, check out our article ‘5 Ways Your Lithium-Ion Batteries Can Be Damaged (And What to Look For)'.

How to safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries

Li-ion batteries should never be incinerated directly due to the risk of explosion. They are also a significant fire risk if sent to landfill. Always seek to recycle your Li-ion batteries.

The first step in safely disposing of a defective lithium-ion battery is to discharge it completely, as a charged battery can be dangerous. As the IOSH writes, this should be achieved “using a circuit that incorporates a suitable load to prevent a short circuit.”

“Saltwater immersion is sometimes recommended as a means of rendering damaged lithium ion cells safe for disposal. Care is required before following this disposal route to make sure the battery does not still contain enough energy to short circuit or explode.” IOSH, ‘Lithium batteries and their safe storage, transport, use and disposal, including re-use and re-cycling

Once the battery is discharged, it should be placed in a designated battery recycling bin.

When placed in a recycling bin, batteries should be separated from other materials. Use a separate bin for different Li-ion battery types (e.g. automotive, industrial, and portable) as each has a different waste route. 

The storage unit itself should be fire-rated where possible, but non-combustible as a minimum, and well ventilated. Keep your recycling bins outside the premises in a secure, cool, dry storage area, away from any sources of heat, including direct sunlight. 

Don’t store the bins along fire escape routes or gather points, and routinely empty the bins to prevent your waste batteries from building up. Bins should be taken to a recycling centre that specifically handles Li-ion batteries, where you can be sure they will be properly recycled.

Related read: The Environmental Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries Revealed

Always consult the manufacturer’s instructions before disposing of a Li-ion battery. They will outline how to dispose of your specific battery types safely and responsibly.  

How do you handle your defective Li-ion batteries?

In today’s world, it is all our responsibility to be aware of the risks surrounding Li-ion battery disposal and take necessary actions to dispose of our batteries responsibly. Lithium mining leaves a big footprint on the environment and, indirectly, on the sustainability of any company using Li-ion batteries to power their operations. Recycling your end-of-life batteries helps to mitigate this by keeping their lithium in the supply chain. 

The processes you’ve implemented to store and transport your batteries shouldn’t end when they do. At a time when Li-ion regulations are still a grey area in many regions, we hope this advice provides you with a starting point for how you reevaluate battery disposal across your own operations, helping you to keep your people safe and your operations sustainable.

To download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for lithium-ion batteries, click here.