Cell phones thrown in the trash are exploding, causing 5-alarm fires in
garbage trucks
May 18, 2018  Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

A Waste Management employee collects garbage in Castro Valley, Calif.,
Friday, Dec. 18, 2009
A basket of lithium-ion batteries
Lithium-Ion batteries from popular electronic devices such as cell phones,
power tools, laptop computers and batteries

video  flash
Fire ignites at Ecomaine facility

SAN FRANCISCO - Love your electronic devices all you want, but please,
please, please don't throw them in the trash when you're done with them.

That's a plea from makers of the lithium-ion batteries that typically power
our phones, laptops and even power tools. Thrown into the trash or even the
recycling bin, they can cause fires at trash and recycling centers.

Last year, 65% of waste facilities fires in California began with
lithium-ion batteries. And when one goes, others can, too.

"If there are multiple batteries there, you will have not just a fire, you
will have explosions,' said Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a
national recycling program funded by battery manufacturers.

It's such a big problem that this week, California has launched an awareness
campaign to try to get consumers to keep these ever-so-useful but also
potentially dangerous items out of garbage trucks and landfills. It's part
of a national effort to keep increasingly common batteries from causing

Those fires can be devastating. In March, an improperly disposed of
lithium-ion battery caused a five-alarm fire at a recycling facility in
Queens in New York City. It burned for two days and shut down four branches
of the Long Island Rail Road for several hours, due to the thick smoke
blowing onto the tracks.

That same month, an Indianapolis recycling plant also shut down after a fire
blamed on batteries.

Last year, a lithium-ion battery thrown into the trash caused an explosion
in a New York City garbage truck when the workers compacted the waste,
igniting and exploding the battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are found in cell phones, laptop computers, cameras
and rechargeable power tools and even the electric scooters that have risen
in popularity in the past year, says Kerchner. They also power electric cars
like Teslas and Chevy Bolts.

When it comes to the lithium-ion batteries in everyday devices, consumers
tend to put them in the recycling "hoping that somebody at the end of the
line will recycle them eventually,' said George Kerchner, executive director
of the Rechargeable Battery Association.

We use a lot of them. In 2017, 175 million pounds of lithium-ion batteries
were sold into the U.S. market, according to Call2Recycle.

The problem with lithium-ion batteries is the same thing that makes them so
great - they're small and light but still pack a serious energy punch. These
are the same kind type batteries that were catching fire in the recalled
Samsung Galaxy Note 7's - as well as many other Samsung and other phone
models that don't regularly explode.

Even when they've pooped out in your device, there's still enough charge in
them that they can create a spark if the terminal of the battery - the metal
bits that send power from the battery into the device, touch something
metallic, like the side of a garbage truck.

This can close the circuit, which creates an electric charge that can create
a spark.

"And sparks create fires. If it's at a recycling facility where it's mixed
in with paper and other items that are burnable, that just goes up like you
wouldn't believe,' Smith said.

"These are high-energy batteries, no question about it. If they're not
properly handled they can catch on fire, Kerchner said.

What to do with them

Some areas' recycling programs have special battery recycling. For example,
in San Francisco, you can leave batteries in a bag on top of your recycling
bin on trash day and the local trash company will take them away to be

Nationally, lithium-ion batteries can be recycled at all Home Depots, Lowes
and Best Buy stores.

If you put them in your recycling bin, put them in a closed plastic bag so
that the battery can't come into contact with metal. A Ziploc bag or
something similar works well, said Smith.

Don't put them in the regular garbage, which is typically crushed and
shredded. That can cause fires and even explosions.

A less optimal but possible solution is to wrap either electrical or duct
tape around the battery to cover the terminal, so that it can't make contact
with metal and therefore close the circuit, said Smith.

And note that lithium-ion batteries aren't the same as the alkaline
batteries that typically go into toys and other devices that don't need
really small, energy-dense batteries. Alkaline batteries can and should be
recycled, but they don't carry so much electrical charge that they're a fire
[© 2018 Midwest Television]
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