If you are reading this, there is a high probability you are using a laptop, cell phone or tablet with an embedded lithium-ion battery. An embedded battery is small, light and quick to recharge. It is also glued into your device so it can’t be accessed due to its high volatility and tendency to explode if dropped or agitated. It is this volatility and the difficulty in removing a glued-in battery that makes embedded batteries hard to recycle.
Embedded batteries are not new to the electronics industry but they are being used more frequently as consumers demand ever-smaller devices with greater functionality and longer battery life.
Before batteries were embedded in electronic devices, they were installed in accessible pockets that allowed them to be replaced. For example, alkaline batteries commonly used in remote controls were accessed by sliding open the back of the remote for easy access. Recyclers can access pocket batteries like these easily and quickly, and alkaline batteries are not inherently dangerous in the way that lithium-ion batteries are.
It was the switch to lithium-ion batteries that has created physical and economic recycling challenges. More manual labour is required to open sealed electronic devices and to unglue the battery within. The work is also more dangerous because of the volatility of the lithium-ion battery.
How Do Shift and Revolution Recycling Make a Difference?
Stewardship Ontario’s incentive-based battery recycling program makes it possible for Shift Recycling and Revolution Recycling to spend the additional time and labour required to properly handle embedded batteries.
“The program allows us to spend more time doing an intensive sort of electronic devices with embedded batteries and to go through the necessary hazard removal and segregation process for those batteries,” explains Mike Godfrey, Director of Operations & Compliance, Shift Recycling Inc. “It’s very labour intensive as we can sort about 20 CRT’s in the time it takes us to process one embedded device.”
At Shift and Revolution, electronics without batteries are sorted in one department while everything else goes to a triage area where it’s inspected thoroughly and hazards are removed. The remaining items (wire, plastic, circuit boards, etc,) go through the shredder and batteries are sorted by chemistry.A quarantine area is available if an employee is not sure about an item to make sure it does not get mixed with the e-waste stream until it can be examined.
One of the ways to mitigate against lithium-ion battery volatility is to tape the battery terminals for transport so they will not explode or start a fire. This can happen if a negative terminal rubs against another negative terminal or a positive terminal rubs against another positive terminal.
After the terminals on the lithium-ion batteries are taped, they are placed in a metal drum for transport by truck to a downstream vendor who specializes in end-of-life recycling. It’s important to note that battery recyclers generally specialize in just one type of battery so they need to be carefully segregated.
Batteries can be a wonderful source of commodities in the recycling process. Lithium-ion batteries, for example, can contain cobalt, copper and assorted precious metals. However, if these batteries aren’t handled by a professional, certified recycling company such as Shift and Revolution, we lose out on recovering the valuable commodities and we suffer if their toxic components are released into the environment.
“Understanding the true cost of recycling embedded batteries is important,” says Godfrey. “It’s not about the lowest or highest price; it’s about making sure a recycler has the appropriate certifications. With batteries, the best priced recycler won’t necessarily handle it properly. The batteries could end up somewhere inappropriate, leach into the ground or even cause a fire in landfill if you don’t use a qualified, certified recycler.”
If you have questions about recycling embedded batteries, contact Shift Recycling today.