Consumers may not know it, but their cellphones and laptops – if improperly disposed of – could become an incendiary device. Ditto that for anything with a rechargeable battery, like a toothbrush, drill, or any number of now-common household appliances
That’s because of the inherent volatility of lithium-ion batteries, which are facilitating global society’s transition toward electric energy over fossil fuels. Those batteries generally aren’t a fire risk if left unmolested, but when compacted in waste collecting trucks (for trash, or recycling) they can start to smolder. And if the smoldering load from the truck ends up in a materials recovery facility, aka MRF, they can start a fire that can quickly grow out of control – there’s a lot of paper fuel in a recycling facility. The waste management industry even has a term for the phenomenon – hot load – and if detected by the driver before delivery, they are dumped outside of the MRF and hosed down before being processed.
Fires, or at least smoldering waste, are also an increasingly frequent risk at landfills, where such batteries can get compacted by a truck and then become incendiary, if only underground.
Zoë Shoats, a spokesperson for ReGen Monterey (formerly Monterey Regional Waste Management District), says that fires are now a weekly occurrence at ReGen’s MRF and landfill in Marina.
And given all the paper material collected at the MRF at any given moment, the fires present a constant threat to burn down the whole facility, as happened in 2016 in San Carlos, just north of Redwood City.
“We see more than one fire per week,” Shoats says. “It’s pretty significant.”
To stave off the threat, Shoats says, some ReGen employees are part of a staff volunteer firefighting force that seeks to douse any fire as quickly as possible, as the facility is several minutes away in response time for the closest fire engine.
Peter Skinner, a longtime finance director for ReGen who retired last year, helped organize a lithium-ion battery recycling event in Monterey, Salinas and Soledad on Nov. 12 so locals can safely dispose of their devices (details at lithionrecycle.com).
“I for one was always fearing we were going to burn down our $25 million recycling facility, so it always scared the hell out of me,” he says. “That’s where my awareness started.”
Through the Cannery Row Rotary, Skinner learned a Los Altos rotary club had formed a relationship with Redwood Materials, a lithium-ion battery recycling startup led by founder/CEO J.B. Straubel, who also co-founded Tesla.
The niche Redwood is carving out is simple: The principal minerals in the batteries – lithium, cobalt and nickel – all have to be mined, mostly abroad, and it makes sense to close the loop: The idea is to harness those minerals within, as Straubel has said, “America’s junk drawers.” And EV batteries, too.
Unlike many “recyclable” products, the metals don’t degrade in the process – they can continue to be used in perpetuity.
A goal for Redwood, spokesperson Sonja Koch says, is to “ [drive] down the cost for electric vehicles in the U.S., and keep [the metals] in a circular supply chain.”