Lithium-ion batteries appear to be causing major problems for the smartphone and electronics recycling industry due to their inherently unstable design and resulting fires, according to a recent report from The Washington Post. Primarily, the problem stems from a combination of the methods used in the recycling process, the proliferation of non-removable batteries, and costs associated with devices that aren’t recycled while their components are still valuable. Each of those factors is also intrinsically linked to the other. The results of those issues are suspected battery fires at recycling centers in New York, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho, and California during 2018 alone. Moreover, the source indicates that some devices that are thrown into the trash cause fires elsewhere, such as in garbage collection vehicles or related facilities. California provides a particularly potent example of the problem with as many as83-percent of recycling and waste management facilities reporting at least one fire over a two year period. 40-percent of those are thought to have been caused by the batteries in question.
At the heart of the problem is the volatile nature of the components themselves and how dominant they’ve become in the world of electronics. Lithium-ion batteries are used in portable power banks, Android smartphones and tablets, smartwatches, electronic cigarettes, laptops, and a plethora of other portable and home technologies. As has been repeatedly shown with reports of smartphones and other devices bursting into flames while charging due to minute defects, it only takes a very small amount of damage to cause a fire. In the worst-case scenarios, those are accompanied by small explosions. That’s costing facilities that experience problems money and putting them in a position where the risk and costs associated with handling the batteries outweigh the benefits to the facilities themselves. Put simply, the equipment used to sort recyclables at the typical facility are not gentle with the items that are being processed and the batteries themselves are becoming increasingly difficult to remove due to design decisions. Specifically, OEMs are wedging the battery between glued screens and back panels for the sake of water-resistance. The components are then either screwed or glued to the frame to prevent jostling. At the same time, the batteries are becoming comparatively easier damaged by sorting machinery due to being thinner.
Because the majority of locations aren’t equipped or staffed to handle the components more appropriately, fires are starting which can cause millions of dollars in damages. Hundreds of millions of smartphones are sold globally each year and one out of every 3,000 is estimated to catch on fire during recycling. Interestingly, the third aspect of the problem would intuitively seem to be a step in the right direction. Namely, users are holding onto their smartphones for longer, which should ultimately bring the overall number of smartphones recycled per year down. However, that also shoulders recycling centers with issues concerning the balancing of the income from recycled goods and the risks posed by lithium-ion-driven incidents. The components in older devices bring in less from a financial perspective but the costs associated with risk remain the same.