Safety Spotlight: When Lithium Batteries Look Like Lead

Jun 7, 2018, 21:21 PM
Content author:
External link:
Image Url:

May/June 2018

Lithium-Ion-BatteriesA Safety Spotlight feature in Scrap’s March/April 2018 issue addressed the hazards of lithium batteries from consumer products, which are causing fires at MRFs and other recycling facilities. Lithium and other nonconforming batteries are a hazard for lead battery recyclers and secondary lead smelters as well. Because these batteries can be similar in size and shape to lead-acid vehicle batteries, they are ending up at lead battery recycling and smelting facilities in growing numbers, increasing the risk of injury, fire, and equipment damage if they enter the battery-breaking process.

A Recycling System at Risk

Lead batteries are a recycling success story in the United States and abroad. More than 99 percent of spent lead batteries in the United States are recycled, according to the Battery Council International’s 2017 National Recycling Rate Study. That equates to more than 4 billion pounds of recycled lead batteries annually. Jeopardizing this success, however, is the recent proliferation of nonconforming batteries in the lead-acid battery stream.

“We see nonconforming batteries enter our waste stream daily, with lithium batteries coming in weekly,” says Ray Krantz, director of business development for Gopher Resource, which recycles lead batteries at a facility in Eagan, Minn. Lead recyclers, battery manufacturers, and battery retailers who return scrap batteries say they are seeing more such batteries, and the lithium auto batteries also are getting harder to distinguish from the lead ones. Most lithium batteries are physically smaller, and they are used for other products besides vehicles, Krantz says. “But some lithium auto batteries are being made to look like lead auto batteries.”

The similarities in appearance are a concern because lithium batteries “react violently in the battery-breaking process, resulting in the risk of severe human injury, explosion, and fire,” according to RSR Corp.’s (Dallas) policy on lithium battery handling. “Lithium batteries are extremely dangerous at the lead recycler and must not be delivered by vendors or contract customers,” the policy states. Krantz echoes those concerns about nonconforming batteries in the lead battery stream. “There can be injuries to workers and damage to the battery breaker and housing,” he says. “We obviously want to do everything possible to avoid a single injury or stoppage.”

Know the Signs and Train Accordingly

A careful examination can reveal the differences between lead-acid vehicle batteries and those that are lithium or other materials.

Weight. The most obvious clue is that lead is heavier than lithium. The average weight of a lead-acid vehicle battery is about 40 pounds, while that of a lithium-ion vehicle battery is about 25 pounds.

Label. Most lead batteries will have the chemical symbol Pb on the label; lithium batteries should be labeled Li. Other labels might indicate the battery is nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) or some other battery chemistry. Some labels can be confusing, however.

Design. The terminals on a lithium battery will look different from those on a lead-acid battery. Also, nonconforming batteries might have cases in unusual colors.

Train battery handlers how to recognize these batteries and how to properly handle them. If you receive lithium or other non-lead batteries at your facility, segregate them by battery chemistry, ensuring any exposed terminals are protected. Then contact a battery recycling firm to find out the best way to recycle or dispose of them.  

BCI conducted a survey of members in January, including scrap dealers and battery retailers across the United States. The responses raise concerns about whether companies are providing adequate training and following proper procedures to identify and remove nonconforming batteries. Of the 91 scrap dealers responding, 22 percent say they do not provide any battery handling training to new employees, and 21 percent say they provide no additional training after hiring the employee.

The survey also reports these worrisome results:

• 13 percent of scrap dealers responding say workers do not inspect all the batteries they receive.

• 2 percent of these respondents say employees who handle batteries cannot identify the differences between some lithium auto batteries and a lead auto battery; 13 percent express some uncertainty about workers’ knowledge.

• 19 percent of the scrap dealers responding say their workers handling batteries are unaware that lithium batteries entering the lead battery recycling process could cause life-threatening injuries.

• And 21 percent of these respondents say employees who handle batteries are not sure what to do with nonconforming batteries that arrive with those they’ve purchased or otherwise received from their customers.

When Lithium Batteries Ship With Lead

Commingling lithium batteries with lead batteries on pallets destined for secondary lead smelters is a violation of U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and other hazardous waste and universal waste regulations. A shipper of batteries violating these regulations faces fines and other heavy penalties.

If such mixed loads arrive at battery-breaking facilities, the facilities have safeguards in place designed to catch nonconforming batteries before they enter the processing equipment. “Substantial resources, manpower, time, and cost is employed at RSR to screen, remove, and safely dispose of lithium batteries,” the company’s policy states. These safeguards can include human spotters stationed along the conveyor belt system that moves the scrap batteries into the breaking part of the process and metal detectors set to read certain levels of metal that are consistent with lead batteries. When the detector identifies a nonconforming battery, an alarm sounds and the conveyor belt stops. A worker retrieves the nonconforming battery by hand before the machines start again. Some recyclers are experimenting with X-ray and other sophisticated scanning or detection equipment, but these systems are unproven. And none of these systems is infallible.

Even when a system performs as designed, battery processing comes to a halt to allow the worker to remove the nonconforming item, slowing production and resulting in hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars in downtime. Further, the battery processing facility must quarantine nonconforming batteries and dispose of them properly, which adds to the facility’s costs.

When the battery recycler can identify the source of a nonconforming battery, it will pass along its costs. “Fines for handling, disposal, and recycling are passed back to the shipper or generator,” Gopher Resource’s Krantz says. If an explosion in the lead smelting process causes injury or death, that supplier also could be on the hook for legal fees and expenses. Battery recycling and consuming facilities also say they bar suppliers that are repeat offenders.

Train your employees to inspect all batteries set aside for recycling to ensure lithium and other nonconforming batteries are not part of the lead-acid battery load. That extra step could prevent hefty fines or expensive disposal costs. More important, it helps keep everyone safer.

Tod Lyons is communications and sustainability manager at Interstate Batteries Recycling in Dallas and serves on the Battery Council International Lithium Ion Battery Sub-committee. Reach him at 972/715-6694 or

  • 2018
  • May_Jun

Have Questions?