Treat it as your back-office urban mine. Recycling lithium-ion batteries helps your business make the most of it. (The environment will thank you)

With the increase in battery-driven technologies comes a skyrocketing number of lithium-ion batteries. The energy dense chemistry of these batteries makes them small, light, and powerful, an ideal combination for a range of applications. 

But their widespread use also leads to the inevitable question of what to do as they reach end-of-life. Few businesses can escape the reality of recycling lithium-ion batteries. Whether you’re using cell phones, laptops, or portable power packs, or rely on remote monitoring systems, solar backup storage, or UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), lithium-ion batteries keep things humming until it’s time for recycling. 

Soaring demand drives boom in lithium-ion battery recycling

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lithium-ion batteries can be effectively recycled. In fact, a booming lithium-ion recycling industry exists, led by giants like Li-Cycle. This firm is currently constructing the largest lithium-ion recycling plant in North America in Rochester, NY. Using a zero-emission, zero-wastewater process, the plant will have capacity to process 25 metric kilotons of input material, recovering as much as 95% or more of cobalt, nickel, lithium, and other valuable elements. 

Startups as well as established recyclers are also stepping up to meet demand as the production of lithium-ion batteries soars. The total production capacity of the world’s lithium-ion battery factories is projected to increase from 290 GWh in 2018 to 2,000 GWh in 2028.

So, what’s the rate of recycling lithium-ion batteries? 

The good news is the recycling rate is not quite as bleak as a widely circulated figure of only 5% suggests. According to a study by the Swedish Energy Agency, lithium-ion battery recycling rates are routinely under-reported. Evidence suggests that far too many researchers use old, secondary data and rarely check references. 

Although the exact recycling rate is hard to pinpoint, Circular Energy Group, a London-based research and consulting group, estimates, based on data collected from global lithium-ion recycling companies, that the rate is around 50%

Still, that leaves a massive volume of wasted lithium-ion batteries. The loss is not only counted in environmental destruction, but as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, also the outright loss of strategic, critical resources for which there are no easy substitutes. 

There are primarily two types of lithium batteries:

  • Single-use, non-rechargeable batteries

Made with lithium metal, these are commonly used in products such as cameras, watches, remote controls, handheld games, and smoke detectors. Some are mistaken for alkaline batteries, while others come in specialized shapes, such as button cells. 

  • Rechargeable lithium-polymer cells (Li-ion, Li-ion cells)

Commonly found in cell phones, power tools, digital cameras, laptops, children’s toys, e-cigarettes, small and large appliances, tablets and e-readers. While some Li-ion batteries can be easily removed from the products they power, others cannot.

Checking hazardous waste regulations

As your business explores which corporate electronic recycling partner should be in charge of recycling lithium-ion batteries, keep in mind different regulations apply to households and commercial entities. While households tend to be exempt from hazardous waste regulations, commercial establishments are not. Your business is, as a result, responsible for determining whether the waste you produce is hazardous, including EOL lithium-ion batteries. 

A few points from the EPA to remember:

  • Some lithium-ion batteries meet the definition of hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). They are classified as such if they exhibit a characteristic of hazardous waste such as ignitability, reactivity or toxicity when they are disposed of.
  • Lithium-ion batteries with different chemical compositions can appear nearly identical, yet have different properties. If there’s uncertainty, consider managing Li-ion batteries under the federal “universal waste” regulations in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 273.
  • Universal waste regulations do not require shipment using a hazardous waste manifest, but do require that the waste be sent to a permitted hazardous waste disposal facility or a recycler.
  • Small businesses, or those that generate small amounts of hazardous waste per month, should consider the RCRA “very small quantity generator” (VSQG) regulations. Li-ion batteries discarded by businesses that generate less than 100 kg (220 pounds) of hazardous waste per month are considered very small quantity generators of waste. Therefore, they may be subject to reduced hazardous waste requirements. 
  • Consult your state solid and hazardous waste agencies for additional information on applicable universal waste regulations.

Once you understand the regulations that apply to your specific situation, the next step is typically sending the batteries to your chosen electronics recycler. How to ship batteries is such a common source of questions that we created a video to explain it in more detail. Most business owners have read enough horror stories of battery explosions and fires to know that this job can’t be done on a whim. 

Here’s a quick recap of how to package lithium batteries for shipping: 

  1. Pick the right tape: In the case of battery packaging, you only need two types of tape: electrical tape and packing tape. Duct tape and other types may be conductive.
  2. Select the right container: Plastic pails or cardboard boxes work well because they are non-conductive (for that reason, anything with metal is a no-go). Check with your local transportation department since there may be additional guidelines for your packaging groups. 
  3. Start packaging following the directions below. 

Lithium-ion

Lithium-ion batteries come in many different shapes and sizes. Some have recessed terminals, which is a beneficial feature since it protects them from shorts with other batteries. Those that have exposed terminals, however, require tape. In this case, you can use a big piece of packing tape to cover them. Packing tape works well here and also allows you to read and identify the battery labels. 

Lithium-ion polymer

How do you identify a battery that is a lithium-ion polymer? Firstly, it says so at the top. Secondly, the thin packaging is a telltale sign. For this battery, you can use a piece of electrical tape to cover the terminals on the front and back. Because this packaging is so permeable, take great care when you place it into your own packaging. 

Lithium-metal 

Here comes a good trick to insulate lithium-metal batteries. Put down a big piece of clear tape and lay it flat. Then, lay down all your cells, fold the tape over, and insulate both sides. Mission accomplished. 

Do you have more questions about recycling lithium-ion batteries? We are here to help you make the most of your back-office urban mine. Contact us today. 

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