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Spark Joy, Not Fires: Safe Battery Use and Storage

Cassandra Hemenway

Many common items in our lives have serious safety or toxicity problems. For example, we get lulled into a fantasy of its safety simply because a cell phone sits in every pocket and seems harmless. However, cell phones are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which, when improperly handled, spark fires –sometimes massive, hot, fires that decimate buildings and can burn for days (or even years in a landfill).

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only type of material that requires safe handling, but they are particularly volatile. To complicate matters, it’s not unusual for someone to “wish cycle” a cell phone by tossing it into their recycling bin. In January, a fire in a recycling center in Tioga County, NY was apparently caused by a crushed lithium-ion battery. Nobody got hurt, but the fire burned for days through bales of recyclable materials.

In February, a house burned to the ground in Greensboro, Vermont, after the homeowner used “knock-off batteries” without an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listing in a rapid charger, according to Dan Gauthier, Co-op Insurance investigator. “These batteries sell on eBay for $30-$35, and the name-brand batteries are $100,” Gauthier stated in his report.

Greensboro Fire Department Chief, Dave Brochu, explained that the combination of the off-brand batteries for charging a power tool and the “rapid charger” started the fire. A rapid charger, (also known as a “quick charge” or “fast charger”) can charge up a battery that normally might take a few hours, in a fraction of that time. It uses significantly more electricity and requires a battery and device designed to be used in the fast charging unit.

Neither of the above examples turned deadly, but such events have that potential, and both were avoidable with safe battery use, storage, and recycling. Recycling batteries properly (not in your blue bin) avoids fires; it also keeps batteries’ heavy metals and toxins out of the landfill, which ultimately means out of landfill leachate, and therefore out of our water systems.

The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, has found that cadmium and nickel, two common ingredients in batteries, are known human carcinogens. Other toxins found in batteries include lead and mercury. So, we have a real incentive to keep batteries from leaching those toxins in a landfill.

Start by finding the closest battery recycling outlet near you.

Call2Recycle manages state battery extended producer responsibility programs and has an information-rich website that includes a zip code-zoned map with drop-off locations. Often batteries can be recycled at the point of purchase, such as at a hardware store or a Home Depot. Go to https://www.call2recycle.org/locator/ to find the nearest battery recycling outlet to you.

Before drop off, you’ll need to save batteries at your home. Consider an entire cell phone a ‘battery” for this purpose. Call2Recycle drop-off sites accept both batteries and cell phones.

Scrapped mobile phones for recycling. Image: Wikipedia

Safe battery storage:

  • Place batteries back in their original packaging OR
  • Tape the terminal ends of each battery with duct tape or electric tape but don’t cover the battery label. This is key to getting it recycled properly. You can also put each battery into a plastic bag if taping is not an option.
  • Place cell phones into a plastic bag for safe storage.
  • Aim to get your batteries and cell phones to recycling within six months of storage.
  • Make sure your batteries are stored in a dedicated location (not loose in a drawer or mixed in with small metal objects) in a cool, dry location.

These few safety steps will minimize the risk of fire and environmental damage and help to get your batteries recycled appropriately.

Takeaway tips:

  • Make sure you are using the correct battery. Avoid off brands.
  • Make sure your battery is UL listed. Lack of a UL listing means the item doesn’t meet the safety standards of the Underwriters Laboratory. Look for the UL symbol.
  • Make sure rechargeable batteries are designed for the charger you’re using.
  • When ready to recycle, either tape or bag your batteries and cell phones.
  • Go to https://www.call2recycle.org/locator/ to find a nearby drop-off site.

Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District. She writes and educates about composting, recycling, and how to avoid use of common household toxins.

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