Battery disposal: big challenges for the supply chain

How can the industry deal with batteries in a safer, less wasteful way? 

In February 2019, a recycling site fire in St Helens ignited an area of 50 x 50 metres and sparked public health warnings due to a resulting 30-metre-high smoke plume. It took firefighters a whole weekend to extinguish the blaze, which was thought to be caused by discarded lithium batteries.

Battery disposal is already fraught with worries: explosions, fires, risk to employees and environmental damage. That’s not to mention legal responsibilities, with businesses required to follow the law on transporting hazardous waste and many obliged to run take-back schemes. However, the complexity of electric car batteries (featuring different combinations of metals) adds a new level of challenge into the mix. It’s one that many recycling plants are not equipped to handle.

As consumer and industry hunger for battery power continues, how can supply chains better cope with disposal? And how can they make a positive impact on a pressing environmental challenge?

Why batteries present more of a danger 

Today’s batteries create greater risk of hazards than in previous decades. There are several key reasons to be aware of:

Some types of batteries are less robust than others

Li-ion batteries are more prone to damage than other types, especially if they have thin casings that are less resistant to pressure. An added difficulty is that damage inside the case may not be obvious. 

Higher power-to-weight

Modern batteries have a much higher power-to-weight ratio (otherwise known as energy density) than in the past. You’re now looking at a product that’s smaller, more powerful and potentially easier to damage.

The wide range of different battery types in today’s consumer devices

Batteries take many forms and consumers aren’t currently expected to sort them or understand the differences. Nevertheless, due care and attention is needed to ensure safe battery disposal.

The sheer volume of electronics being produced and disposed of

The number of electronic devices sold grows each year. Market data analysts Statista predict that smartphones alone will reach unit sales of 2,260 million in 2020. Most of these products will have the option to run on battery power. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency puts the number of batteries thrown away each year in the ‘billions’. In the UK, it’s thought to be around 600 million

There are evidently some knowledge gaps to be addressed in order to improve recycling rates. One UK survey found that two out of five households throw old batteries in the bin; one in three said they didn’t know batteries could be recycled.

Read more about recycling, reuse and remanufacturing for consumer electronics.  

Increasing production volumes

The range of available battery types is wider than ever, but the push for Electric Vehicle production means further large volumes will need to be disposed of safely. It’s estimated that 90% of the market for lithium-ion batteries will relate to electric and hybrid vehicles by 2025.

Solutions: how to deal with batteries

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) says there is a “definitely a correlation in the rise of these batteries showing up in the waste stream and catastrophic fires occurring.” In America, safety and recycling programmes are multiplying in order to cope with the need for safe disposal.

Training and publicity

Recycling, disposal and logistics staff need to know what to do to prevent accidents and expensive damage. Safety training for workers is essential to decrease the risks involved in  battery handling.

It’s not just workers that need to be educated. The public can also play a vital role in keeping batteries safe. Fires can happen when batteries are transported with other recycling; this is the reason many local authorities and recycling firms transport batteries on the outside of their trucks. In addition, batteries that have been left inside discarded devices can easily be missed. 

Programmes that highlight such dangers to the public effectively are hugely important. They need to be general due to the wide range of batteries available, but in the US, the 99% recycling rate for lead-acid batteries is seen as a positive sign. 

“Public education plays a role in making sure that at least the consumer knows a battery can be recycled in a certain way,” says Steve Christensen of America’s Responsible Battery Coalition. 

Fire protection 

This is another crucial element of any battery disposal plan. It may mean increasing your fire detection systems or overhauling the fire protection you have in place. One key consideration is that water worsens lithium fires, so alternative extinguishers are essential. 

Sort and separate

In recycling, it’s best practice to separate batteries from other waste. It’s also necessary to prevent contact between them, isolating or taping over terminals to stop this happening on lithium and button cell batteries.

Sorting batteries by chemistry type also helps recycling firms retrieve more of the original material, which can be used to make new products.

Leave it to the experts

Battery recycling and disposal should be handled by specialists. Not only will they be aware of their responsibilities and have the right training, but they’ll know what can and can’t be disposed of. 

They’ll also dispose of batteries properly; incorrect disposal has been linked to soil contamination and water pollution. It’s no longer legal to send car batteries to landfill, for example, as they will eventually degrade to leak highly acidic water and lead into the ground. 

No need to be precious

Batteries create a significant environmental threat with regard to the mining and waste of precious and rare metals. As with small electricals, consumers (and businesses) often believe that throwing away an item as small as a battery can have little effect. However, added together, the volume of batteries produced and discarded presents a huge problem. 

It is possible to recover usable metal and chemical material from waste batteries. Steel, nickel, cobalt, cadmium, zinc and lead can all be extracted (dependent on the battery type).

Some materials can be re-used to make new electronic devices or new batteries. They could also be used in other industries, such as paint manufacture, the steel industry and even agriculture.

Meanwhile, old car batteries lose capacity over time but are still usable in a second life application after they are no longer fit for purpose in a car. When added to a battery storage system, they can be used to power homes and buildings. They can also supplement power from wind or solar energy. Alternatively, they could be used in vehicles with far lower maximum speed requirements, such as warehouse vehicles.

Recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries are very low. However, the laws that require battery makers to finance battery collection, treatment and recycling will also apply to car batteries. Lithium can’t be recovered directly by the smelting stage of the recycling process, but it can be recovered from the resulting mixed by-product. Each stage creates extra cost, however, so manufacturers need to recognise that this is a process worth investing in.

Leading the charge for the EV industry

Powering electric vehicles and dealing with EV batteries presents significant challenges, so at Unipart, we’re working to address these head on. 

Our customers need reliability and fast response logistics, so we offer EV battery storage solutions that are safe, secure and flexible. This includes optimised temperature monitoring, as well as developing a “state of charge” monitoring solution to reassure manufacturers and suppliers. In addition, we’re looking at more ways to make storage monitoring smarter.

We’re also experts in the handling of dangerous goods, including packaging and regulations for transportation. As supply chain partners for the automotive aftermarket, we’re experienced in the management of international logistics for high-voltage lithium-ion batteries. 

Drawing on our long automotive heritage, we are also developing new ventures. Hyperbat,  the UK’s largest independent vehicle battery manufacturer, is a partnership between Unipart Manufacturing Group and Williams Advanced Engineering. It will draw on work done by the H1PERBAT project, which looked at second life options for car batteries. 

Currently, there is a lack of regulation for electric vehicle battery disposal as the EV industry is in its infancy. We’re getting out in front of this situation by aiming to set the standard. The feasibility study, Project DETAIN, a partnership between Unipart, Instrumentel, Horiba Mira and Aspire Engineering, is part-funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Faraday Battery Challenge. The project goal is to develop an ‘intelligent’ storage solution for high-voltage batteries that would detect and contain thermal runaway events. Today, industry best practice is to take a ‘let it burn’ approach, storing batteries in standalone ‘sacrificial’ buildings, but this is neither scalable nor sustainable. Instead, we are looking into safer, more efficient practices to advance UK car battery innovation.

A safer, more sustainable future

The predicted growth of the EV industry means the issues will only become more pressing. From fire hazards to environmental challenges, working out how to solve such problems is crucial.

It’s highly encouraging that governments, major brands and the public are getting behind the push for sustainability. Public demand is gradually bringing about ‘greener’ business practices; education and incentives could play a key role in addressing consumers’ role in unsafe battery disposal as well. 

For governments and brands, it comes down to shaping the future and tackling their legal and social responsibilities. From sustainability to safety and efficiency, now is the time for research, innovation and investment.

Want to know more about challenges for the automotive industry and bringing sustainability to the supply chain? Read more articles like this on our Supply Chain Insights page.