The Flathead County Landfill has recently been dealing with a rash of fires that some suspect are caused by certain types of rechargeable batteries mixed in with conventional household waste.
Overall, the number of fires at waste facilities throughout North America have increased by 26 percent from 2016 to 2019. The increase in these fires is suspected to be a result of more prolific use of certain rechargeable batteries that, if crushed or damaged, can become serious fire hazards. Unlike other commonly discarded fire hazards, such as aerosol cans, propane tanks, or charcoal ash, rechargeable batteries are nearly impossible to spot in a heap of trash.
The two most common, and dangerous, types of rechargeable batteries are lithium-ion and nickel cadmium. Lithium-ion batteries are the kinds of batteries that come in cell phones, tablets, laptops, external chargers, or modern vaping devices. Nickel cadmium batteries are widely used in portable power tools, photography equipment, flashlights, emergency lighting, and older portable electronic devices.
Jim Chilton, the Operations Manager of the Flathead County Solid Waste District, noted the prevalence of fires at the landfill during the District’s July board meeting, “So far this summer, we’ve had two fires in the refuse. We suspect the fires were started either due to charcoal remnants from BBQ’s or nickel cadmium batteries that seem to get very hot for some reason when we see them at the landfill.”
Fortunately, it is easy to keep your old batteries out of the landfill by taking them to a designated battery recycling location. Home Depot, located at 2455 Highway 93 North, Kalispell, will take all rechargeable batteries for free at a drop box outside their store. Best Buy, located at 2407 Highway 93 North, Kalispell, will recycle your used devices and appliances that may contain these batteries such as computers, cell phones, gaming gadgets, or cameras and camcorders. Batteries Plus located at 215 West Idaho Street, Kalispell will take rechargeable batteries but charges two dollars per pound for nickel cadmium batteries.
Most lithium-ion and nickel cadmium batteries come with a warning to never expose them to heat. Doing so may melt the insulation, ignite hydrogen gas, cause leakage of battery fluid, or cause the battery to burst into flame. Lithium-ion batteries are particularly flammable because lithium will react with water, even just moisture in the air, to generate heat and sometimes fire.
In addition to being fire hazards, lithium-ion and nickel cadmium batteries contain dangerous materials that can be toxic in certain concentrations and are considered toxic pollutants under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. Though it is unlikely these materials would be released during conventional use, in the advent of a fire the metals in these batteries run the risk of vaporizing and polluting the air and water.
You won’t be alone in recycling your old batteries. Batteries are actually the number one most-recycled item in the U.S., with a 99 percent recycling rate, according to the EPA. Furthermore, lithium ion and nickel cadmium batteries are made of vituly 100 percent recyclable material so recycling them significantly reduces the demand to mine and produce more of these materials.
When storing used batteries prior to recycling, please use caution to keep batteries from short-circuiting, overheating or sparking. For lithium-ion batteries, place each individual battery in a separate non-metal container. For all other household batteries, use clear packing tape, electrical tape or duct tape to cover the ends of the batteries to prevent battery ends from touching one another or striking against metal surfaces. Avoid storing batteries in a metal container.
Ruben Castren, Advocacy and Outreach Director, Citizens for a Better Flathead. 406-756-8993