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The dangers of non-conforming batteries in the Lead battery recycling process

August 2018 | By Tod A. Lyons

 

Lead batteries continue to be a recycling success story in the United States and abroad. In fact, according to a National Recycling Rate Study commissioned by Battery Council International (BCI) in 2017, more than 99% of Lead batteries are recycled.This is equivalent to about 4 billion pounds of lead batteries recycled every year.

As successful as the lead battery recycling rate is, secondary lead recyclers, battery manufacturers and battery retailers,like Interstate Batteries, Inc.,are beginning to see more lithium and other non-conforming batteries making their way into the lead battery recycling streams.

As recently as March 23, Gopher Resource in Tampa, FL received 19 lithium batteries resembling lead batteries on a single truckload.  Fortunately, the spotters were able to detect the batteries before they entered the breaking part of the process.  “Had those batteries been missed by our spotter, they could have caused significant damage to our breaker or even worse, injured one of our workers,” said Ray Krantz, Director of Business Development at Gopher.  “We see non-conforming batteries enter our recycling stream daily with lithium batteries coming in on a weekly basis.”  Since more lithium batteries are being made to resemble lead batteries it is becoming increasingly more difficult to identify them.

In a flier/poster entitled The Critical Identification and Separation of Lithium-Ion Batteries From collecting Lead Batteries for Recycling, published by East Penn Manufacturing, Co., “Many people just don’t know the severe consequences that can occur by putting a lithium battery on a lead battery skid for recycling.  Often, most don’t even recognize the visible difference between the two batteries because lithium batteries are being made to look more and more like a traditional lead battery design.

“According to a lithium battery handling policy distributed by RSR Corporation, Dallas, TX, “Lithium batteries are extremely dangerous at the Lead recycler and must not be delivered by vendors or contract customers. They react violently in the battery breaking process resulting in the risk of severe human injury, explosion and fire."

In a survey distributed by the BCI in Jan. 2018, 22% of the respondents said they do not provide any training to new employees for battery handling--that’s one in every five.  While nearly 78% of the respondents said they did provide training in the on-boarding process of a new employee, 21% of those provided no additional training after the employee is hired.

 Besides the issue of lithium batteries disrupting the lead battery recycling process, co-mingling lithium batteries with lead batteries on pallets destined for secondary lead recyclers is a strict violation of Federal Department of Transportation regulations and other hazardous waste and universal waste regulations.  Fines and heavy penalties can be assessed to the shipper of the batteries who violated the regulations.When the non-conforming batteries are discovered at the secondary lead recycler they are quarantined, and then secured for shipment to a third party for proper disposal and recycling, Krantz said.

In the BCI survey, 13% of the respondents said their employees did not inspect all the batteries they take in, and 15% may not be able to identify the difference between some lithium batteries and a lead battery.  So how can you tell the difference between lithium batteries and lead batteries? Probably the most obvious difference is the weight.  The average weight of a lead automotive battery is about 40 lbs

where a Lithium automotive battery weighs around 25 lbs. Ultimately a proper visual inspection is needed to confirm the lithium battery is not placed in the lead battery recycling stream according to Krantz. Most lead batteries will have a Pb on the label and lithium batteries should be labeled Li. But some labels can be confusing so it is important to carefully inspect the battery and label to determine if it is a lithium,lead, Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) or other battery chemistry. The terminals are also a good indicator, and sometimes there are labels and odd color battery cases Krantz said.

It is important for employees handling batteries to learn the differences.  This is particularly important when 18% of scrap yard employees that handle batteries were unaware that lithium batteries entering the lead battery recycling process could cause life-threatening injuries.  Just over 37% of employees and businesses are not even sure what to do with non-conforming batteries if they do come in with lead batteries they’ve purchased or otherwise received from their customers according to the Survey.

Even with spotters stationed along the conveyor belt system that moves the scrap batteries into the breaker, it is still possible for lithium batteries to be missed during that review. Some lead recyclers have a metal detector set to read levels of metal that are consistent with lead batteries, but even those machines are not infallible. When a non-conforming battery with the improper metal level is detected, an alarm sounds and the conveyor belt stops. However, now a secondary lead recycler employee has to climb down to retrieve the bad battery, then get back to his post, then restart the machine.  This slows the overall process, forcing hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars in down-time for the recycler.

 When lithium and other non-conforming batteries are intercepted before they enter the smelting process, the lead recycler must properly dispose of those batteries which adds costs. “Fines for handling, disposal and recycling are passed back to the shipper or generator,” Krantz said. The same holds true for RSR and likely other secondary lead smelters. Shippers will be held accountable.

Properly disposing of lithium batteries could cost as much as $6.00/lb at some lead recyclers. If there is an injury or death as a result of a lithium battery exploding in the lead smelting process, legal fees and expenses could be included on top of penalties or fines back to the shipper.  “Substantial resources, manpower, time and cost is employed at RSR to screen, remove and safely dispose of lithium batteries,” according to their policy.

 Repeat source locations that send lithium batteries with lead batteries will be identified by lead recycling facilities and bar that shipper from further deliveries of batteries to the recycler. Even if you purchased well wrapped batteries from another source and included those in your lead battery load, if lithium batteries or other non-conforming batteries are found on that shipment, you will be held accountable. To avoid fines and additional costs for disposal of non-conforming batteries, shippers should inspect the batteries they plan to recycle.  If lithium and other off-chemistry batteries are discovered, they need to be segregated and properly disposed of according to federal and state hazardous waste and/or universal waste regulations.  If you are unsure about what to do with lithium and other non-conforming batteries, contact Interstate Batteries Recycling in Dallas toll free at 888-872-4001.

Because lead batteries have become such a success story in the recycling world, some people handling them believe all batteries can be recycled in similar fashion. This is not the case.  Taking the extra care and time to identify the types of batteries you have to recycle could keep you and your company from receiving hefty fines, penalties or expensive disposal costs, and keeps everyone safer within the entire battery recycling process.

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