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The Lithium Battery Waste Problem and How Waste Management Companies Can Solve It

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Upgrading your site to store and transport lithium-ion battery waste could be key to unlocking new efficiencies and futureproofing your waste management operations.

There’s a new type of product filling your waste streams. 

Small, light, and often concealed in handheld electronics and other devices not much bigger or heavier than itself, it isn’t much to look at. But for waste management providers, the ability to process it plays a critical role in maintaining an effective waste disposal service.

It’s a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, and if popped inside a compatible torch it can shine a light on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing waste management in the near future.

In the past few months alone, I’ve spoken with a number of waste management providers about the lithium battery waste problem. What does this challenge look like? And for those waste companies willing and able to invest, how can it also be an opportunity for growth?

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About the author

My name is Ben Seddon and since 2007 I’ve helped a wide range of industrial, institutional, educational, and commercial customers from across the UK source the Emtez solutions they need to comply with key legislation and keep their people safe. Today, these solutions include spill kits, absorbents, flammable liquid containers, and specialist lithium-ion battery storage solutions designed to contain and control lithium-ion battery fires in the event of an incident.

For more information about Li-ion battery storage solutions, download your copy of our Lithium-Ion Catalogue for free now.CH-L1 Closed Blue

Li-ion batteries and the changing state of waste management

Future efficiency requires innovation now

Efficiency is one of the most common metrics to which waste management providers hold themselves accountable. In this context, efficiency can be seen as the ability to process waste in a timely and cost-effective manner. It requires the implementation of streamlined processes, advanced technologies and, in the case of some waste types, safe storage and transportation solutions to optimise resource utilisation and reduce environmental impacts. 

While storage solutions are just one part of a dedicated Li-ion battery processing inventory, they’re key to a site’s ability to hold high volumes of this battery type safely and responsibly, whether for processing on-site or transportation to dedicated Li-ion recycling facilities.

According to recycling campaign group Material Focus, “five million disposable vapes are thrown away every week”. The requirement for specialist storage solutions that safely accommodate the growing volume of Li-ion battery waste will challenge waste management providers to re-examine their processing strategies and technology setup as part of any plan to drive up efficiency and maintain an effective waste management service.

“Today, only 5% of the world's lithium-ion batteries are thought to be recycled across the globe, with dramatic environmental and financial implications for the projected 8 million tons of waste.” 

Lithium Ion Battery Recycling, CAS

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

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Sustainability has become business-critical

Back in 2015, The Guardian highlighted the need for a fundamental change to how we conceive of and view waste in the first place. “If there’s one thing on which all waste experts will agree it’s that the linear make-use-dispose model on which we built our society needs ditching for good,” business writer Oliver Balch explained. “It’s all about going ‘circular’.”

He goes on to explain: “By 2025, waste disposers won’t be burying or burning people’s rubbish as they do today [...] These companies will merge into what [Marcus Gover, then director at the UK advocacy group WRAP] terms the ‘reprocessing industry’.”

2025 is almost visible on the horizon and the growing presence of Li-ion batteries in our waste streams threatens any gains made in this direction if the waste management companies handling it are not set up to reprocess them safely, responsibly, and effectively. 

“Millions of disposable vapes that could be recycled are ending up in landfill despite containing lithium, an in-demand metal needed for batteries,” wrote The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2022. “While each vape contains just 0.15g of lithium, the scale of the waste means about 10 tonnes of the metal is ending up in landfills.”

Reprocessing focuses around the recovery of valuable materials and minimising the amount of waste sent to landfill. Efficient waste processing facilities often employ innovative strategies such as recycling, composting, and energy recovery to reprocess waste that would otherwise be discarded. By scaling up Li-ion battery recycling, you boost efficiency while contributing to a more circular economy where waste is regarded as a resource.

“There will likely be a severe but temporary global battery shortage by 2025 due to a sudden increase in demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and a shortage of mined and refined battery metals, akin to the current silicon chip shortage. But the industry is investing heavily to prevent this [...] by reducing its use of scarce materials, developing new materials and battery technologies, and most important of all, developing a scaled-up global battery recycling industry.” 

Is KoBold Metals the key to the lithium-ion battery shortage?’, GlobalData Thematic Intelligence, Mining Technology

Read more: The Environmental Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries Revealed

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Legislative challenges left and right

In the same article by The Guardian, Balch highlights: “The European Commission recently backtracked on an ambitious set of legislative promises on waste and recycling, including the phasing out of using landfill for recyclable rubbish and a commitment to cut food waste by 30% by 2025.”

New sustainability initiatives have been introduced since, but in other ways the powers behind them haven’t changed. As recently as September 2023, the UK government announced its intention to backtrack on key green targets, highlighting the challenges faced by waste companies and any businesses working to comply with shifting targets.

Lack of legislation surrounding Li-ion batteries specifically is a particular issue when you consider their growing volume in waste streams. In the absence of clear government directives on how to store, dispose of, and recycle this technology safely, the responsibility falls to providers themselves to define policies that protect their people regardless of whether they intend to process them on-site or transport them to specialist facilities elsewhere.

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Getting around the lithium battery waste problem

In the waste management space, the lithium battery waste problem extends well beyond health and safety, but it also comes back to it. As hazardous products like these enter your waste streams, it’s vital that you can store and transport them safely, on-site and off.

In the case of Li-ion batteries specifically, this includes key considerations that will protect your people, your premises, and the local environment against the fire risks they pose.

To find out more about the best safety and storage solutions for waste management providers specifically, click here, where we go into detail about our Lithium-Ion Cabinets and Lithium-Ion Transport Boxes and their applications in waste processing environments.

If you’d prefer to chat to me directly, you can get in touch here. I’m already in conversations with several waste management providers about the impact of Li-ion batteries on their operations and I’d welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your circumstances, too.

Li-ion batteries might be small and light and they might often go unnoticed altogether, installed inside everything from e-cigarettes to electric cars. But your ability to process these battery types will be key for turning your waste streams from trash to treasure while contributing to a more circular waste model around which a cleaner, safer future turns.

To chat with me about the impact of Li-ion batteries on your waste management operations, get in touch below.