‘Ticking time bomb’ to be exposed at key waste event

Nestled in Teslas to garden tools, mobile phones to lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners to vapes, a growing army of lithium-ion batteries threatens to catch fire at any moment. An IOSH partnership is set to shine a light on what’s been termed a ‘ticking time bomb’ at this week’s Resource & Waste Management Expo (13-14 September), held at Birmingham’s NEC.

There’s a hidden component powering our drive towards a cleaner, greener, more streamlined lifestyle – yet it remains largely silent, mostly hidden from view.

Our cars, e-bikes, vacuum cleaners, mobile phones, garden and DIY tools, for example, are increasingly reliant on the Lithium-ion battery. McKinsey has forecast a 30% annual increase in the global Li-ion battery chain towards a 2030 market size of 4.7 Terawatt-hours.

With multi-national car giants pledging to stop selling gas-powered vehicles by the first half of the next decade, according to BloombergNEF, three quarters of the world's passenger vehicle sales will be electric by 2040. Energy grids the world over are growing rapidly thanks to advances in battery storage technology. Meanwhile, cordless vacuum cleaners account for 40% of the UK market (compared to 5% 20 years ago) and 14 million vapes are now disposed of every week in the UK.

These batteries are not only not easy to dispose of (due to excessively low miners’ wages it also costs more to recycle/reprocess them than to mine more lithium), but they’re getting bigger as well as greater in number. This poses an increasing threat to people’s safety, chiefly because of their potential to start fires – and vigorous, dirty and dangerous fires at that. While burning e-bikes increasingly cause harm and destruction on being left to charge inside homes, well over a third of waste site fires are said to stem from Li-ion batteries.

Safe management

So, what’s going to happen to this growing army of batteries once they become worn out, get damaged or are no longer needed? How can they be managed safely?

The IOSH Environmental and Waste Management Group has teamed up with the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum to examine this issue at a special joint session as part of the Resource & Waste Management Expo, held at the NEC, Birmingham on 13 September (10:00-10:45 – Material Village Theatre).

Titled, The hidden dangers of lithium battery disposal, the event’s panellists will include Antonia Grey of the British Metals Recycling Association and WISH, Phil Clark from the Operational Response and Control National Fire Chiefs Council, and Gareth Rollings, Head of Waste at West Sussex Council.

Geoff Smallwood, from WISH, one of the brains behind the session, sees a real need to raise people’s general awareness of potential dangers around the use, storage and disposal of Li-ion batteries.

“I doubt there’s a house in the country that doesn’t have some sort of device or appliance driven by a lithium battery,” says Geoff.

“So, the solution to finding the safest, most appropriate ways of disposing of unwanted Li-ion batteries has got to be shaped by society – the size of the challenge is too great to leave the waste management industry holding the baby, so to speak.”

This has got to be about all of us understanding the risks, says Geoff, so it has to feature:

  • a broad commitment to making it easier for people to dispose of batteries
  • governments and local councils bringing in legislation and regulation that facilitates the easy removal of batteries from mobile phones, for example, and other devices
  • people being aware of the risks and motivated to take their old batteries back to where they bought them, rather than just bunging them in the nearest bin
  • manufacturers taking on greater ‘lifecycle thinking’ when bringing a product to market, considering waste recycling and disposal issues early on in its design stage
  • and, yes, waste managers developing better and safer ways of recovering and dealing with waste lithium batteries.

New behaviours needed

Geoff sees learning new behaviours as being key: like making sure your charger is compatible with the battery when buying something on e-bay; remembering to check the battery casing hasn’t cracked after falling off an e-bike; not putting a lithium-battery-charged toy car in the plastics skip at your local tip when it should go in waste electrical; charging an electric skateboard in the garage, not in the kitchen; and helping users to see the proper disposal of their vapes as an easy and cool thing to do.

Dr David Thomas CFIOSH, Chair of the IOSH Environmental and Waste Management Group (EWMG), who worked closely with Geoff in putting the Expo session together, points to the key role of health and safety professionals in ensuring the appropriate management of Li-ion batteries.

“Many IOSH members get drawn into roles that include both waste management and/or fire risk assessments/safety management”, says David.

“In many environments this is a specialism outside of traditional training and learning. This event at Expo is the leading event supported by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), with whom the IOSH EWMG has an historic and ongoing close relationship.

“Appropriate competency, supported by experience and knowledge at the appropriate level, is essential. This event demonstrates the importance of networking and obtaining knowledge in multidisciplinary roles,” he added.


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Jeremy Waterfield
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