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The twin threats plaguing e-waste

Battery-operated electronic devices have become an integral part of everyday life in Australian households. From smartphones and tablets to micromobility, embedded battery-powered consumer products include headphones, smart watches, electric toothbrushes, shavers, battery-operated toys, drones, e-scooters, e-bikes, portable power-banks, and especially single-use vapes. This short list is only scratching the surface, with most of these products powered by various types of battery chemistries from single-use alkaline to embedded rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. They also end up as e-waste.

Despite the availability and use of these products for many years, products with embedded batteries have not been declared a priority waste. This is where producer responsibility programmes can be appointed and made responsible for the costs of collection, transportation and recycling to reduce waste to landfill. This is especially true for the hazardous materials found in embedded lithium-ion batteries and the fire risk they pose when crushed at kerbside waste and recycling collections.

Current e-stewardship programs include televisions, computers, printers, mobile phones and loose household batteries. The programs limit eligibility of other embedded lithium-ion battery products not specifically listed in their respective schemes for recycling. This leaves consumers guessing how to recycle their unwanted end-of-life battery-operated products. A number are incorrectly disposed in general waste and kerbside recycling bins, where embedded batteries are likely to be crushed. Lithium-ion batteries in compactors, MRFs, transfer stations and landfills can suffer a thermal runaway condition that can result in a fire. The risk to waste management industry assets is increasing with improperly discarded products found in every waste stream.

Ecocycle, a recycled materials specialist, has been instrumental in highlighting the urgent need for specialised collection and recycling options of embedded lithium-ion battery devices. It is taking steps in mitigating environmental impacts, and for the reclaiming of critical minerals and other valuable resources currently lost to landfill. Through its subsidiary, Ecobatt, it operates company-owned household battery collection kiosks equipped with smart sensor technology for effective fill, temperature monitoring, and collection scheduling of batteries. The kiosks are strategically placed in more than 6,000 locations including supermarkets, hardware stores, other retail outlets, council buildings, and libraries across the country.

While the purpose of these battery kiosks is the collection of household batteries, they also inadvertently receive single-use vapes and other battery embedded products as frequent by-catch with recycling costs absorbed by Ecobatt. Ecocycle is advocating for government funding to support these recycling efforts with national product stewardship. Despite its initiatives, integrating end-of-life, single-use vapes – for example – into an extended product stewardship program where importers, retailers and consumers contribute to industry-led recycling efforts, remains a challenging goal for local, state and federal governments alike.

Without urgent intervention to minimise the risks of the range of consumer lithium-ion battery products and the advantages of existing recycling expertise infrastructure nationally, the risk of adverse battery-related fires will continue to exponentially increase year on year. Embedded battery products must be segregated from other general waste and recycling streams. Not only are general waste collection services at a constant risk, but so are recycling facilities as evident by the loss of Canberra’s only recycling centre in 2023. It was reported to have been destroyed by a lithium-ion battery “thermal runaway” event igniting a fire resulting in a total loss. The public must be made aware that all batteries store electrical energy in chemical form and are predominantly safe up until their disposal.

Physical damage to the internal structure of a lithium-ion battery during kerbside waste collection and processing can result an immediate adverse reaction, or as found in Canberra, occasion in a delayed chemical reaction that may result in a battery-related fire. This is especially a high risk in close contact with other combustible materials.

Thermal-runaway events in the waste and recycling industry are caused by the inadvertent physical abuse conditions experienced by embedded lithium-ion battery products, like single-use vapes and other small consumer products incorrectly placed in kerbside general waste or recycling bins.

For example, Fire and Rescue NSW in their SARET Research Team report for 2022 and 2023 on lithium-ion battery incidents, list six battery-related fires at waste/recycling facilities and 20 fires involving waste collection trucks.

At the same time, 76 micromobility e-bike and e-scooter-related fire incidents were recorded. While the frequency of lithium-ion fires may be relatively small when compared to their market prevalence, their end-of-life consequences can be costly, endanger human life and the environment.

Ecobatt’s range of battery transport bins and household battery collection kiosks equipped with smart sensor technology reduce the risk of loose battery and embedded lithium-ion battery product collections. Continuous development with patented technology in collection bins and fire containment provisions further emphasises Ecobatt’s commitment to safety solutions for the reduction of even rare adverse events.

At present, household battery recycling is estimated at just over 12 per cent and recycling rates are projected to grow in single digits, while every month millions of single-use vapes are still disposed with countless other embedded battery products. The perceived lack of incentives for consumers to recycle embedded battery e-waste appropriately highlights an urgent need for enhanced government focus and industry support.

Raising consumer awareness, extending producer responsibility, and investing in leading recycling technologies are fundamental strategies. Companies like Ecocycle and Ecobatt are at the forefront of these initiatives, playing a role in advancing the proper recycling of all e-waste and their embedded lithium-ion batteries. These efforts are not only essential for environmental preservation but also for recovering critical materials that are currently lost at landfill. The risk of underground landfill fires is projected to increase as the quality of lithium-ion batteries self-discharge rate is continuously improved.

Read more: Plant to tackle lithium-ion issues

The demand for rechargeable battery products is expected to soar, driven by innovations in consumer technology, as well as the automotive, medical, and industrial sectors. Consumer goods equipped with efficient lithium-ion batteries and their residual energy capacity, represent the largest proportion of improperly disposed e-waste products at landfills, highlighting a critical area for improvement in waste management. Landfill bans for e-waste are in place in Vic, SA and WA, but battery fire events continue to be reported.

Although state government agencies are actively involved in recycling initiatives, the burden of investment in collection, recycling and specialist processing equipment is difficult to sustain by the recycling industry alone. The economic difficulties are demonstrated with some recyclers either exiting the market or falling into voluntary administration. A successful circular economy requires government support and is commendable with emerging policies, but incorrect consumer disposal is persisting. Without targeted education, the financial risk and the risk of battery-related fires posed by end-of-life e-waste not included in current product stewardship schemes is escalating. The industry is already burdened with sharp increase in insurance premiums, which are now virtually impossible to avoid.

To mitigate the risks associated with all consumer e-waste, prioritising their proper recycling is essential. Ecocycle and Ecobatt stand at the forefront of industry to ensure the safe collection and handling of loose and embedded lithium-ion battery products. With years of experience in the responsible recycling of various battery chemistries, the group is well-versed in the potential risks associated with batteries and adhere to stringent protocols to prevent mishaps during collection, transportation, and recycling processes.

Recently, the Victorian Government acknowledged the significance of advancing recycling initiatives by awarding two grants totalling $3.5 million to enhance lithium-ion processing and recycling capabilities. This funding, distributed as part of the third round of the Circular Economy Infrastructure Fund Hazardous Waste initiative, includes a substantial $2.5 million grant to Ecobatt. While this represents a commendable step forward, it is clear that Australia still has a considerable journey ahead. Additional funding is crucial to enable those in the material recycling industry to effectively keep pace with escalating hazardous battery waste demands.

The primary challenge in recycling e-waste containing lithium-ion batteries lies in their complex material composition. This necessitates specialist equipment and controlled processes for effective commodity separation with implementation in reduction of secondary waste generation and targeted off-gas treatment. Ecocycle and Ecobatt’s national recycling infrastructure already plays a pivotal role in addressing the household battery waste crisis, offering an environmentally responsible disposal option to consumers and industry alike. With planned process expansions and additional funding support, Ecocycle and Ecobatt are poised to improve Australia’s capability to manage current and future consumer e-waste battery volumes. This includes end-of-life embedded lithium-ion products, enhancing a crucial segment of the country’s recycling recovery for critical minerals towards environmental sustainability.

Increasing consumer and institutional awareness through targeted educational campaigns and resources is crucial in transforming recycling behaviours and ensuring the long-term success of these initiatives. It is imperative that current consumers nurture a culture of recycling, starting at an early age with primary school education campaigns and embedding sustainable practices into the fabric of society. By prioritising environmental stewardship and adopting advanced recycling technologies, Ecocycle and Ecobatt are not just addressing immediate environmental challenges but are also paving the way for future generations.

Giving support to organisations that achieve effective management of e-waste and battery recycling demands with a collaborative approach, and seeking regulatory support, government funding, industry collaboration and effective community engagement are exemplary.

Such strategies are key to addressing the challenges of not just single-use and rechargeable consumer batteries in e-waste, but also the paramount safe collection, transportation and processing of their embedded lithium-ion batteries.

Collection of any consumer e-waste or household batteries should not be excluded from existing national e-waste or battery product stewardship programs in any state or territory.

Urgent funding for recycling of all consumer e-waste products at end-of-life must be resolved to diminish the fire risk embedded batteries pose to the waste industry with government intervention nationally. The Ecocycle group is focused on ensuring the protection of our environment promoting a circular economy with its specialist battery and associated e-waste collection and recycling capabilities, investments in fire mitigation products, and battery bulk transport and processing equipment. Ecocycle and Ecobatt are committed to environmental health, sustainability and community safety. By highlighting the risks of incorrectly disposed end-of-life embedded batteries in e-waste they demonstrate their dedication to industry leadership and consumer awareness.

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