As technology propels forward, so does the demand for powerful batteries. However, recent headlines spotlighting the hazards tied to lithium-ion batteries underscore the urgency for enhanced education.
Consumers should become familiar with the products that use lithium-ion batteries and understand proper handling and disposal methods. Equally important is that suppliers, retailers, and regulators have a shared responsibility to decrease the risk of fire and injury to consumers.
The involvement of regulators and retailers helps decrease the likelihood of fires and injuries. In my 10+ years of experience in lithium battery safety and regulatory development, it is clear that the sheer volume of lithium-powered products in our daily lives is driving the increase in safety risks.
As more products use these batteries, the potential for hazards like fires increase as well. Risks are even greater in cities, where dense populations and high-rise buildings increase the chance that a lithium battery incident will affect a greater number of people.
WHAT ARE LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES AND WHY DO THEY CATCH FIRE?
Lithium-ion batteries are a fantastic option for product manufacturers thanks to their high energy density. Put simply, these batteries are lightweight and sport a long battery life. This winning combination means they work great in a plethora of products.
But the lithium contained in these batteries is a self-oxidizing, flammable metal. Unlike traditional fires, the flames from them can’t be smothered by removing the oxygen that fuels the fire.
In many cases, fires caused by lithium-ion batteries start due to “thermal runaway.” Thermal runaway is a complex process and is thought to occur when cells within a battery become unstable, likely due to physical damage to the battery or overcharging.
Once the cells become unstable, it creates a rise in temperature within the battery, which can move from cell to cell, before moving outside of the battery. This movement is why you may have seen videos of people putting out these fires, only for them to start again minutes later.
Lithium-ion batteries have been in the news due to e-bike and EV fires, but the list of products that contain these batteries expands far past these two examples.
At SmarterX, my team compiled a dataset containing over 40,000 consumer products in the U.S. that contain lithium-ion batteries. We work closely with retailers and suppliers to better understand what chemical and physical properties make up their products and how they can and should safely handle them. These products are widespread and sold by top retailers and big box stores.
While it would be overwhelming to list every product, we were able to break the information down into consumer product categories and a list of the most popular products to paint a comprehensive picture.
Common products that contain lithium-ion include smartphones, laptops, portable chargers, charging stations (battery backups and generators), ebikes, toys, e-cigarettes, wireless earbuds, drones, EVs, lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws, and even some surfboards.
The high-level categories include computers and laptops, which account for over 30% of all products containing these batteries. Home appliances make up another 11% and outdoor recreation equipment accounts for over 10% of these products.
While lithium-ion batteries can be a danger, they are incredibly useful. If handled and disposed of correctly, the likelihood of safety incidents can be dramatically reduced.
6 TIPS FOR HANDLING LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES
Never keep lithium-ion batteries near heat sources or store them in areas with temperature extremes or high humidity.
Look for issues with your batteries, such as odor, leaks, or bulging.
Never ship batteries that are damaged or defective.
Be wary of cheap batteries. It is typically better to stick to name-brand options.
If you encounter a leaky battery, make sure no one in your house touches the spilled material. Wear personal protective equipment and handle it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you are returning a product, make sure to inform the business of any issues you encountered with the batteries.
DISPOSAL OF LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES
When it comes to disposal, many questions can arise. But, the main takeaway you should remember is that lithium-ion batteries should always be disposed of with care.
Some battery types can be thrown in the trash, but you should first check with your local waste authority to ensure that is safe and permitted. More often, lithium-ion batteries should be taken to a recycling center. Inform the center of your battery specs and they will help with the disposal process.
Additionally, many cities hold household hazardous waste (HHW) disposal events, which help locals dispose of chemical products, medical waste, and electronics.
Finally, you can utilize organizations such as Call2Recycle, which collect batteries for recycling.
REGULATORS AND RETAILERS NEED TO GET INVOLVED
It’s not, and should not be, just up to consumers to safely manage these products. It’s also the responsibility of regulators, retailers, and suppliers.
For regulators, it’s important to keep pace with technological development, continuously engage the regulated community, and work with industry groups to find solutions that achieve safety objectives with the least amount of friction and change. Working across jurisdictions to recycle what works well is also important. There are laws and regulations for pre-market safety testing, transportation, storage, waste, accessibility and “right to repair,” and even extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. A lot could be learned from coordinated, cross-functional reviews.
Retailers and suppliers also have a responsibility to understand the risks these batteries hold and train staff on proper storage, shipping, and disposal practices—especially as it relates to customer returns.
When a product with lithium-ion gets returned to a store, it’s typically on the warehouse or back-of-store staff to figure out what to do with it. Without the proper data and guidance, it can be very easy for a product to be shipped or disposed of in the wrong way—leading to potential safety hazards and violations.
I believe that most people want to do the right thing and initially that just means becoming aware and getting educated. Everyone has a role to play in preventing batteries from creating hazards (consumers, manufacturers, shippers, retailers, regulators, etc). If there was a geek-squad version of Smokey the Bear I’m sure he’d say, “Only you can prevent lithium battery fires.”
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