Worldwide figures from the UN’s global e-waste monitor1 show that electronics and electrical equipment waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. A record 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 per cent in just five years. The 2020 report also predicts that global e-waste – discarded products with a battery or plug – will reach 74 metric tonnes by 2030.With more household electronics reaching the waste stream, waste managers are facing a greater volume of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. In January 2021, the Environmental Services Association and Eunomia published a report, Cutting Lithium-ion Battery Fires in the Waste Industry2. The report states that approximately 201 recorded waste fires take place across the UK each year, with an annual cost to the UK of £158 million. While this seems high, smaller fires may not be reported to the Environment Agency, so the number may be even higher.
It is estimated that around 48 per cent of waste fires can be attributed to lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). The problem arises when household batteries are damaged through the crushing of batteries by recycling vehicles or in compactors, or if battery cases are water damaged. Batteries self-combust, and even small watch-style batteries can cause hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage and potential injury or death.
Although legislation has been in place since 2010 for retailers to offer battery recycling to the public, take-up is low. This means that of the 40,000 portable batteries sold in the UK in 2020, just 18,000 were recycled. Local authorities are now turning their attention to play their part in increasing UK battery recycling rates – both for safety and because of the environmental damage batteries can cause in landfill.
Valpak, which is the compliance partner to over 4,000 businesses, currently operates 40,000 battery collection sites around the UK. Since August 2020, we have been supporting Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council to run a kerbside and bring bank campaign to increase small WEEE waste and battery recycling.Will Gander, Service Lead at Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council said: “You find these small lithium-ion batteries in everything from vaping units and remote controls to phones and i-pads. They pose a real threat to our crews and equipment, not to mention the public. We’ve had seven fires caused by batteries placed in general waste and have just been lucky that our crews have been quick-thinking and managed to save our RCVs.
“We have retrofitted all our collection vehicles with cages to allow the collection of small WEEE for both residual and recycling waste now and have also been running public information campaigns.
“The new system is very popular. We were finding that the collection vehicles would fill with small WEEE waste before we could finish the round, so Valpak helped by providing 17 WEEE waste recycling banks that are serviced by our partner, GAP. These are emptied when full, and people do use them. What we need to do now is keep educating the public that small WEEE waste and batteries need to be recycled. People need to know that these batteries are dangerous when damaged and that they need to be recycled with care.”
Valpak has been working with partners to trial different systems around the country. We provide free UN-approved battery collection boxes and larger containers for waste transfer stations and, in 2020, won the prestigious National Recycling Award for Partnership for the UK’s first carbon-free battery collection from businesses.
Through our PowerToDoMore campaign, we donate to charity or reward consumers for donating waste products, and also assist with marketing and communications for local authority campaigns.
With the danger from battery fires on the rise, we need to work together to do whatever we can do to help avoid fires and increase battery recycling rates.
Opinions expressed in this blog belong to the blogger and not necessarily to LARAC