Dispose before it blows: sparking a light on safe battery disposal

From powering smartphones to consumer electronics, batteries provide a convenient and reliable source of power. However, poorly maintained or damaged lithium batteries can ignite and may even explode. In fact, a survey by Material Focus found that batteries caused over 700 fires in 2022.

In particular, batteries that may end up in landfill or recycling centres that are not set-up to dispose of batteries safely, are at risk of being crushed during the waste management or recycling process. If this happens, the battery can ignite and set fire to the surrounding flammable materials.

It’s also important to consider the environmental impact of improper battery disposal. Battery cells can release toxins that can leak into the environment and contaminate the soil and groundwater.

A danger for waste management fleets and staff 

At Shred-it, we know the danger that inappropriately disposed of batteries can cause.  When batteries are mixed with the paper and other flammable materials we shred, whether that’s confidential paperwork, hard drives or other electronic devices, they can cause a major fire risk.

This can represent a major problem for our fleet, and in turn, our customers, leading to potential delays in services. Most importantly, battery fires can pose a serious safety risk to our customer service representatives and team members in our shredding facilities. 

Why can damaged batteries catch fire?

Like any device that can create and store energy, Lithium-Ion batteries can cause a fire when they’re physically damaged or exposed to excessive heat. Worst of all, battery fire can spread very rapidly, and is particularly difficult to extinguish because the lithium salts in the battery are self-oxidising. This means that they generate their own oxygen and can’t be suppressed like traditional fires. 

But what causes the fire in the first place? When Lithium-Ion batteries are overheated, crushed, short circuit or have another malfunction, a reaction known as “thermal runaway” can occur. This is a chemical process within the battery that produces heat and flammable gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and more. Because of the compact design of batteries, this process creates more heat than can be dispersed, leading to the ignition of the flammable gases.

How can we prevent battery fires?

It’s easy to prevent major damage and help keep operators safe – by practising correct battery disposal. The most important thing to remember is to never bin batteries in your mixed recycling or general waste. Instead, store them separately and take them to a dedicated recycling point. 

Most retailers who sell batteries offer safe battery recycling bins, and your local household recycling centre may also have dedicated facilities.

As well as disposing of batteries in dedicated containers, it’s important to ensure they are completely discharged before recycling them.  This helps reduce the risk of fire and short-circuiting. It’s also advisable to tape or cover the positive and negative terminals of batteries before recycling them so they don’t rub against each other or other flammable materials.

A Shred-it representative, said: “We think people would be quite surprised if they realised the dangers of improper battery disposal, and the damage it can cause. We’re asking our customers to not put batteries in their Shred-it secure document containers, and more widely for people to separate their used batteries from their general waste and mixed recycling. It’s a really easy mistake to make but, once you’re aware of it, it’s also really easy to prevent. Maybe put them in a plastic container or cardboard box until they can go to a dedicated recycling point.”

These easy steps can help prevent physical damage to property and protect the safety of Shred-it customer service representatives and team members at our shredding facilities - as well as limiting the potential impact on local emergency services. 

So when dealing with used batteries: think, don’t bin it.

For more information of what can and cannot be shredded and recycled with Shred-it, visit our resource centre.