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.
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"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 this week, 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 disposed of 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, due to the thick smoke blowing onto the tracks.
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 cell phones, 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 kind type batteries that were catching fire in the recalled Samsung Galaxy Note 7's — 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.