As Mainers start cleaning up all of the household waste generated during the holiday season, the state’s largest recycling facility is warning consumers about the dangers posed by lithium ion batteries, and offering tips for how to safely dispose of them.
December 1st seemed like a typical day at Ecomaine.
A load of paper, plastic and other recyclable materials came in, as it normally does. But as the truck was leaving the facility, a video camera picked up smoke rising up from the pile of recyclables.
“By the time I got from the office to where the fire was actually happening, it had actually turned from smoke to actual flames,” says Ecomaine supervisor Steve Henderson says.
He says his team’s quick response brought the fire under control. But he says it could easily have gotten out of hand.
“These lithium batteries heat up so quick, your reaction time has to be right there,” Henderson says. “You have to be quick. You can’t just nonchalantly say, OK go get the fire extinguisher and we’ll put this out. They don’t go out easy either.”
Lithium ion-batteries can be found in many electronic devices, including laptops and cellphones. That’s because they tend to be cheap, reliable and pack a lot of energy. But these batteries can also pose a huge threat, says Ecomaine’s safety specialist Mark Maritato.
“These batteries contain energy even when they’re considered spent, they still have energy in them,” Maritato says. “And when the cells short-circuit that flammable fluid will catch fire and of course, in combination with the material we have – combustible material – that’s a recipe for disaster.”
The incident at Ecomaine was the second time, in as many weeks, that a lithium ion battery sparked a fire at the plant. Company head Kevin Roche, says its a danger that could also happen closer to home.
“If one of these batteries got into the garbage truck or even the recycling vehicle, you know there is compaction equipment that is handling that material and a fire could happen right at curbside,” he says. “It could happen in somebodies home as well.”
To minimize the dangers of lithium ion battery fires, Ecomaine recommends donating used electronics to charities such as Goodwill or using an online service such as call2recycle.com to properly dispose of these products.