SAN FRANCISCO – Love your electronic devices all you want, but please, please, please don’t throw them in the trash when you’re done with them.

That’s a plea from makers of the lithium-ion batteries that typically power our phones, laptops and even power tools. Thrown into the trash or even the recycling bin, they can cause fires at trash and recycling centers.

Last year, 65% of waste facilities fires   in California began with lithium-ion batteries. And when one goes, others can, too. 

A Waste Management employee collects garbage in Castro Valley, Calif., Friday, Dec. 18, 2009.
AP

“If there are multiple batteries there, you will have not just a fire, you will have explosions,” said Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a national recycling program funded by battery manufacturers.

It's such a big problem that California has launched an awareness campaign to try to get consumers to keep these ever-so-useful but also potentially dangerous items out of garbage trucks and landfills. It's part of a national effort to keep increasingly common batteries from causing fires.

Those fires can be devastating. In March, an improperly tossed  lithium-ion battery caused a five-alarm fire at a recycling facility in Queens in New York City. It burned for two days and shut down four branches of the Long Island Rail Road for several hours because of the thick smoke blowing onto the tracks.

Lithium-Ion batteries from popular electronic devices such as cell phones, power tools, laptop computers and batteries.
Call2Recycle

That same month, an Indianapolis recycling plant also shut down after a fire blamed on batteries.

Last year, a lithium-ion battery thrown into the trash caused an explosion in a New York City garbage truck when the workers compacted the waste, igniting and exploding the battery.  

Lithium-ion batteries are found in cellphones, laptop computers, cameras and rechargeable power tools and even the electric scooters that have risen in popularity in the past year, says Kerchner. They also power electric cars like Teslas and Chevy Bolts.

When it comes to the lithium-ion batteries in everyday devices, consumers tend to put them in the recycling “hoping that somebody at the end of the line will recycle them eventually,” said George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association.

We use a lot of them. In 2017, 175 million pounds of lithium-ion batteries were sold into the U.S. market, according to Call2Recycle.

The problem with lithium-ion batteries is the same thing that makes them so great —  they’re small and light but still pack a serious energy punch. These are the same type of batteries that were catching fire in the recalled Samsung Galaxy Note 7s — as well as many other Samsung and other phone models that don't regularly explode. 

Even when they’ve pooped out in your device, there’s still enough charge in them that they can create a spark if the terminal of the battery — the metal bits that send power from the battery into the device — touch something metallic, like the side of a garbage truck.

This can close the circuit, which creates an electric charge that can create a spark.

“And sparks create fires. If it’s at a recycling facility where it’s mixed in with paper and other items that are burnable, that just goes up like you wouldn’t believe,” Smith said.

“These are high-energy batteries, no question about it. If they’re not properly handled, they can catch on fire," Kerchner said.

What to do with them

A basket of lithium-ion batteries.
Call2Recycle

Some areas’ recycling programs have special battery recycling. For example, in San Francisco, you can leave batteries in a bag on top of your recycling bin on trash day and the local trash company will take them away to be recycled.

Nationally, lithium-ion batteries can be recycled at all Home Depots, Lowes and Best Buy stores.

If you put them in your recycling bin, put them in a closed plastic bag so that the battery can’t come into contact with metal. A Ziploc bag or something similar works well, said Smith.

Don’t put them in the regular garbage, which is typically crushed and shredded. That can cause fires and even explosions.

A less optimal but possible solution is to wrap either electrical or duct tape around the battery to cover the terminal, so that it can’t make contact with metal and therefore close the circuit, said Smith.

And note that lithium-ion batteries aren’t the same as the alkaline batteries that typically go into toys and other devices that don’t need really small, energy-dense batteries. Alkaline batteries can and should be recycled, but they don’t carry so much electrical charge that they’re a fire danger.