Recycling plants are catching on fire

Rechargeable batteries like the one in your smartphone should never be tossed in the recycling

By Jillian Mock

A nightmare for the recycling industry became incarnate when a Texas recycling plant burst into flames in December 2016. The fire caught quickly, melting plastic bottles, consuming cardboard boxes, and incinerating discarded paper. The massive building’s sprinkler system had been damaged in a recent freeze and failed to tamp down the flames. All the firefighters could do was keep the fire contained inside, watching it burn for 12 hours.

By the next morning, it was clear that the facility, a recycling plant that serves the north Texas cities of Plano and Richardson, was a total loss. The fire’s likely cause? The company believes it was a lithium-ion battery, like the one in your cellphone or laptop.

As lithium-ion batteries power more and more of our electronics, they are ending up in our recycling bins, and recycling plants are battling hundreds of battery-caused blazes. What we do with our batteries and electronics at the ends of their lives is fueling one of the biggest emerging problems in the world of waste.

“What keeps me awake at night are these,” Amy Adcox, general manager of Republic Services Plano business unit, says as she waggles her phone. “The electronics.”

She’s standing on a metal platform in the state-of-the-art processing plant in Plano that Republic Services rebuilt after the 2016 fire. Beneath her feet, a conveyor belt rises diagonally from the concrete floor where collection trucks dump their hauls in huge piles, up to the vast web of platforms, conveyor belts, and equipment that sort recyclable materials from the garbage.

Adcox’s smartphone, like virtually all smartphones, is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These batteries are small and lightweight and store lots of power. They’re also everywhere. In 2017, the global lithium-ion battery market was valued at more than $30 billion; by 2025, it is projected to grow to more than $100 billion. Standing in that recycling plant, Adcox had at least two rechargeable batteries on her person: in her phone and smartwatch.

“I personally am a big fan of the technology. I think lithium-ion is transformational,” says Ronald Butler, a battery safety expert. But these batteries also have to be handled properly, he says. If they get damaged, overheat, or short-circuit, a rechargeable battery will have what’s called a thermal runaway event, producing heat internally and getting hotter and hotter until it begins to smoke and then burn. Other batteries, like the old-school alkaline triple As, might contaminate a load of recyclable material if they get crushed or damaged. Lithium, on the other hand, burns hot and will quickly catch fire or explode.

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