Recycling Mystery: Bulging Lithium-Ion Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are the driving force behind products that have redefined life over the past two decades, from smartphones to laptops. However, when they fail, lithium-ion batteries can cause fires that produce toxic fumes. A bulging battery is a clear sign of a malfunction that requires immediate attention. Still, you can recycle it if you handle it safely.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries reduces the need to extract lithium, and reusing the material will be the keystone of a sustainable, electrified life. Meeting the goals for cutting vehicle emissions by 2030 will require the world to produce three times as much lithium annually compared to 2023.
By 2050, almost 20 times more lithium battery capacity will be required to power electric vehicles, backup the electric grid, and keep people connected to the internet. Recycling every ounce of lithium available, even from malfunctioning batteries, can help meet that goal.
Spotting A Problem Battery
The signs of a malfunctioning battery are easy to recognize. Swelling of the battery pouch caused by expanding gas can distort the shape of the device it powers. For example, the iPhone in the photo below popped open because the lithium-ion pouch had swollen to about twice its original thickness. If you notice a laptop touch-pad that has shifted, it indicates that the battery has expanded so much that it bent the metal around it.
Other signs of an approaching battery failure include overheating, leaking chemicals that indicate the pouch burst, and a strange chemical odor. While overheating is an increasingly common issue with many new electronics, you should pay attention to your laptop or phone becoming unusually hot, particularly when not in use.
When You Find A Bulging Battery
Any leakage of battery fluid is a critical issue and requires immediate attention. First, get the battery or device out of the house — a bucket partially filled with sand or setting it in a cool, dry location outside will do. Take care not to come into contact with the fluid by wearing gloves and an apron and protecting your eyes with goggles. Do not use water to clean up spilled battery chemicals, as lithium mixed with water is corrosive. Thoroughly clean any spilled material with an absorbent pad. Send the lithium material and anything you use to clean it to your local hazardous waste facility.
Preventing a fire is your first concern when you discover a malfunctioning lithium-ion battery. Immediately unplug the device and turn it off. Do not attempt to charge a bulging battery. If the battery bursts into flames, use an ABC fire extinguisher to put it out. CO2 fire extinguishers or water will not be as effective.
Move the device and battery to a colder location. Lithium is most stable between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so do not place it in the sun when moving it outside. Cooling or freezing the battery poses a concern when it is warmed later because the temperature change can cause a reaction.
If possible, remove the battery from the device and place the battery in a fire-proof container away from flammable materials — such as the bucket described above. Only do this if you’re sure you can do it safely; don’t put yourself at risk.
Ventilate the area to disperse any potentially harmful gasses.
Do not place the battery or a device containing a malfunctioning battery in the trash. They can cause fires in your garbage can, the garbage truck, or at any step in the waste sorting process. Do your neighbors and waste management workers a favor and take the steps to recycle.
Storing the Bulging Battery Before Recycling
Once a battery is discharged, it is not likely to explode or burn spontaneously. If there are exposed contacts, tape them to avoid an accidental spark that could cause a fire.
Follow the guidance to avoid moisture, heat, and freezing temperatures when storing the battery until you can take it to a hazardous waste facility. Avoid storing the battery in a sealed container, as this could trap dangerous gasses that endanger the recycling worker who opens it.
Loosely wrapping the battery in a plastic bag will do the job. Label the bag and if required by the recycling facility, provide additional information such as the type of battery. And when you visit a hazardous waste facility, be sure to point out the risk of the bag and its contents to workers.
Add your ZIP Code in Earth911’s Recycling Locator to find a hazardous waste facility near you. Before visiting, we suggest you call to learn about their guidelines for bulging batteries.
Finishing the Job: Recycling
It is best to avoid sending your malfunctioning battery or device to a mail-in program. The U.S. Postal Service had designated lithium batteries as hazardous waste that cannot be air-shipped, and any package containing them needs to be marked “HAZMAT.”
When you transport the battery in a vehicle, be sure it is secured and cannot fall or be punctured or crushed by other items.
Batteries play a more prominent role in daily life, and some are bound to fail. Being prepared to recognize a malfunctioning battery, knowing how to handle it safely, and taking the extra steps to recycle it responsibly can contribute to a more sustainable society.
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