Lithium-ion battery waste fires costing UK over 150m a year

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are responsible for around 48% of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year, costing the UK economy some £158 million annually, according to new research conducted by Eunomia Research & Consulting.

This new report, produced jointly with the Environmental Services Association (ESA), entitled ‘Cutting Lithium-ion Battery Fires in the Waste Industry’, suggests that an estimated 201 waste fires caused by Li-ion batteries occur every year in the UK, with damaging consequences for both the environment and society.

The research was supported by a consortium of key stakeholders, including key supporters the Environment Agency (EA), the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and WISH (the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum).

Li-ion batteries are found in an increasing number of electrical and electronic household items such as mobile phones and electric toothbrushes, and even items such as singing greetings cards, an issue often unknown to householders.

These batteries cause a significant fire risk when they get into the residual and mixed recycling waste streams, either loose or inside waste electrical and electronic items (WEEE).

When these batteries are punctured, damaged or are exposed to high temperatures during normal waste processing and sorting operations, they can ‘go off’, setting fire to dry, flammable waste and recycling around them.

With such waste fires burning for days, and sometimes even weeks and months, the environmental damage is extensive, with harmful greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere and water pollution caused by run-off from extinguishing the fires.

Dealing with these fires also means extra work and risk to firefighters, as well as disruption to society through rail, retail and road closures due to smoke from the fires. Waste site operators also have to deal with significant material damage, business interruption and loss of recycling resources.

Li-ion market

This problem is only set to get worse, according to the report, with more and more Li-ion batteries placed onto the market each year. Of the 670 fires recorded by ESA waste management members across the UK in 2019-20, 38% were either recorded as caused by Li-ion batteries or ‘suspected’ to have been.

This is higher than the percentages recorded in the previous three years by the body (21% in 2016-17, 25% in 2017-18 and 22% in 2018-19).

The problem of Li-ion battery waste fires is acknowledged across the relevant sectors, including the waste management, local government and fire service sectors. 97% of respondents to a survey carried out by Eunomia said that waste fires caused by Li-ion batteries were a problem, with 55% saying they were a significant problem.

Just under half of respondents stated that they had experienced at least one waste fire caused by Li-ion batteries in the past year, and 26% of respondents stated that more than half of waste fires they’d suffered were caused by the batteries.

To prevent these fires, Eunomia’s report presents a number of solutions to divert household batteries and small WEEE from the residual and mixed recycling waste streams to specifically designed disposal routes:

  1. Ban the disposal of batteries and small WEEE in residual and mixed recycling waste to prevent this practice and increase the public’s awareness of correct disposal routes;
  2. Encourage separate kerbside collection of batteries and small WEEE by local authorities, with costs covered by revised extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes; and
  3. Investigate the role of a deposit return scheme (DRS) in supplementing retailer takeback for batteries and small WEEE.

Respondents to Eunomia’s survey were supportive of the above measures, with 66% backing separate kerbside collections for lithium-ion batteries, 65% supporting a DRS and 42% backing a ban on the disposal of these batteries in general waste.

Commenting on the research, Eunomia’s lead author of the report Sophie Crossette said: ‘The findings of this research highlight the significant financial burden Li-ion battery waste fires place on the waste sector and public sector services.

‘To date, much of the focus on preventing waste fires has been on improved controls and infrastructure at waste sites. As this report suggests, we now need to focus on upstream interventions to divert batteries and WEEE products from the mixed waste stream to tackle this growing issue.

‘If we don’t start to take action now, the increased use of Li-ion batteries, will only increase the cost and impact of Li-ion battery waste fires in the years to come.”

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