Join Jeff, Meg & Stephen for Industry Insider Mar. 8TH at 12 PM EST Watch Now
Sponsor - Click to visit; Right Click for samples, personalization, and more offers
Sponsors - Click for samples, personalization, and more offers
Tossing Your Lithium-ion Batteries in The Trash?
It's time to reconsider
3/6/2023 | Jeff Jacobs, The Brand Protector
We’ve talked frequently in this column about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries, and with good reason. With the biggest issue being over-heating when they are charging, the increasing number of deaths caused by lithium-ion batteries is reason for alarm.
Not yet convinced? Consider this: in New York City last year, lithium-ion batteries caused so many fires that the Sanitation Department ran out of room to store the hazardous residue. Through most of last year, city workers packed lithium-ion batteries removed from fires into containers at a DSNY storage facility in Gravesend, Brooklyn. According to a recent issue of the City Record , with a record 219 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries found in e-bikes and other devices, the Gravesend facility quickly reached capacity, and is now deemed no longer suitable for the storage of this hazardous material.
In NYC in 2023 alone, lithium-ion batteries used to power electric bicycles and scooters have already sparked 22 fires causing 36 injuries and two deaths. That’s four times the number of fires linked to the batteries at this time last year, officials said last month. The number of e-bike-related fires took off during the pandemic, coinciding with the growth in riders using battery-powered devices to deliver takeout via apps such as GrubHub and DoorDash. In 2020, the FDNY determined that 44 fires were caused by faulty e-bike batteries — in 2021 there were 104.
Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh told The City that Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is “coming at this problem from every single angle,” including working with the City Council and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission on additional regulations for the batteries and educating the public on their proper use and storage . The City also reported in late December that many co-ops and luxury property managers are banning the storage of e-bikes and scooters , and anything charging by way of a lithium-ion battery, from these properties. And property managers aren’t the only ones paying attention: Fordham University and Columbia have also recently instituted ebike and scooter bans on campus for safety reasons.
The fires have posed serious threats to the delivery people using electric bicycles, people using battery-powered devices in houses and apartments and to firefighters themselves. Kavanagh noted that in one incident last year, FDNY firefighters had to use ropes hanging out of the 20th floor of a building to save people trapped by a blaze.
“These are incredibly dangerous devices, and we must make sure that members of the community are handling them properly and using them safely,” Kavanagh said at a briefing on public safety.
Lithium-ion batteries have become a necessary evil in new forms of transportation, common household products and of course, promotional products. But when those batteries fail or overheat, they release flammable, toxic gasses that can spark a fast-spreading fire that is extremely difficult to extinguish.
“The source of the gasses that are creating the flames is confined within a cell battery that will not allow water in,” Ofodike Ezekoye, a fire scientist and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, told NBC News . “When firefighters are responding to these types of incidents, it takes a lot longer to be able to control the fire because it requires so much more water.”
The Portable Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), an industry trade group, said it is “collaborating with emergency response governmental agencies and industry organizations to increase awareness about the risks posed by lithium-ion batteries during handling, storage, and in transportation. We welcome the opportunity to work with all interested parties on lithium-ion battery outreach and education to prevent lithium-ion battery incidents, increase consumer safety, and develop a consistent message on the correct lithium-ion battery emergency response and safety procedures.”
“What we’re seeing is these new technologies, as important as they are, they make it out into the field before we know all the possible consequences that could come from them,” said Steve Kerber, the executive director of the nonprofit UL Fire Safety Research Institute. “It isn’t until failures start to happen that the fire service understands what the consequences are. That’s where we need to start playing catch-up.”
“The number of different battery sizes and types which are in the market needs to be regulated,” said Nikhil Gupta, a professor at NYU-Tandon School of Engineering. “Everybody is using a different type of battery, and there is so little interchangeability in these batteries.”
The risk with lithium-ion batteries doesn’t end with overheating, it continues with disposal. So, what should you do with them to keep you, and your clients, safe?
“The biggest concern in the waste industry is that people toss the batteries in the garbage, and then the batteries will essentially touch each other and create a thermal event,” Leo Raudys, CEO of Call2Recycle , which has collected more than 7.9 million pounds of batteries, says. “The reason we try to get people to recycle batteries and take them to the approved collection sites is just to prevent that and keep them out of the regular waste stream.
Recycled properly, materials like cobalt and nickel can be recovered from lithium-ion batteries, which lessens their environmental impact, and that’s true for burned batteries as well. “All of the metals and materials that recyclers want to recover are still available for recovery in a fire damaged battery,” said Raudys.
In the end, it’s still up to all of us to recognize when an object contains a battery and then to dispose of it properly, which is also part of the problem.
“A lot of these batteries are so small that it’s really easy to lose them in the supply chains, like watch batteries,” Gupta said. “I don’t know how people will see recycling of them to be very important because nobody’s going to go to Home Depot just to drop off batteries coming out of a watch or something so small.” But, we all know it’s the right, and safe, thing to do, so let’s not only do it, let’s also work collectively together to help educate others on this topic — we might manage to save some lives along the way.
Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance , the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. Connect with Jeff on Twitter , LinkedIn , Instagram , or read his latest musings on food, travel and social media on his personal blog jeffreypjacobs.com . Email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Next up from The Brand Protector...