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The dangers of non-conforming batteries in the lead battery recycling process

Secondary lead smelters, battery manufacturers and battery recyclers are seeing more and more lithium batteries and other non-conforming batteries making their way into recycling streams

A lithium battery that has made its way to a lead battery recycler.
A lithium battery that has made its way to a lead battery recycler.

Lead batteries continue to be a recycling success story in the United States, Canada and abroad. In fact, according to a National Recycling Rate Study commissioned by Battery Council International (BCI) in 2017, more than 99% of Lead batteries are recycled.  This is equivalent to about 12 billion pounds of lead batteries recycled in a four-year period.

As successful as the Lead battery recycling rate is, secondary lead smelters, battery manufacturers and battery recyclers are beginning to see more and more Lithium batteries and other non-conforming batteries making their way into the Lead battery recycling streams. 

"We see non-conforming batteries enter our waste stream on a daily basis with Lithium batteries coming in on a weekly basis," according to Ray Krantz, Director of Business Development for Gopher Resource in Eagan, MN.  While most Lithium batteries are physically smaller and used for other products besides vehicles, Lithium auto batteries are being made to look like lead acid auto batteries making it more difficult to identify them. 

According to a Lithium battery handling policy distributed by RSR Corporation, Dallas, TX, "Lithium batteries are extremely dangerous in a Lead smelter, and must not be delivered by vendors or contract customers. They react violently in the battery breaking process resulting in the risk of severe human injury, explosion and fire."  At Gopher Resource, when Lithium and other non-conforming batteries slip into the smelting process, "There can be injuries to our workers and damage to the battery breaker and housing," Krantz said.  "We place great emphasis on prevention.  We're very methodical in keeping our environment safe and our process efficient. We obviously want to do everything possible to avoid a single stoppage." 

Besides the issue of Lithium batteries polluting the Lead battery recycling process, co-mingling Lithium batteries with Lead batteries on pallets destined for lead smelters is a strict violation of U.S. Federal Department of Transportation regulations and other hazardous waste and universal waste regulations.  Fines and other heavy penalties can be assessed to the shipper of the batteries who violated the regulations. When the non-conforming batteries are discovered at the smelter they are quarantined, and then secured for shipment to a third party for proper disposal and recycling, Krantz said.

So how can you tell the difference between Lithium Auto batteries and Lead acid auto batteries?  Probably the most obvious difference is the weight.  The average weight of a Lead acid auto battery is about 40 lbs where a Lithium-ion auto battery weighs around 25 lbs.  A visual inspection is needed according to Krantz.  Most Lead batteries will have a Pb on the label and Lithium batteries should be labeled Li.  But even some labels can be confusing so it is important to carefully inspect the battery and label to determine if it is a Lithium or lead acid battery.   The terminals are also a good indicator, and sometimes there are labels and odd color battery cases Krantz said.

Smelters do have spotters stationed along the conveyor belt system that moves the scrap batteries into the breaking part of the process, but it is still possible for Lithium batteries to be missed during that review.  Additionally, some smelters have a metal detector set to read certain levels of metal that are consistent with Lead batteries, but even those machines are not infallible.   When a non-conforming battery with the improper metal level is detected, an alarm sounds and the conveyor belt stops. However, now a smelter employee has to climb down the belt to retrieve the bad battery, then get back to his post, then restart the machine.  This slows the overall process, forcing hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars in down-time for the smelter. 

When Lithium and other non-conforming batteries are intercepted before they enter the smelting process, they must properly dispose of those batteries which adds significant costs. "Fines for handling, disposal and recycling are passed back to the shipper or generator," Krantz said.  The same holds true for RSR and likely other secondary lead smelters.  Shippers will be held accountable.

Properly disposing Lithium batteries could cost as much as $6.00/lb at some smelters.  If there is an injury or death as a result of a lithium battery exploding in the lead smelting process, legal fees and expenses could be included in any fines or charges back to the shipper.  "Substantial resources, manpower, time and cost is employed at RSR to screen, remove and safely dispose of Lithium batteries," according to their policy.  Smelters will identify repeat source locations (shippers and generators) when Lithium batteries are included with Lead batteries on truckload shipments and bar that shipper from further deliveries to secondary lead smelters.   Even if you purchased well wrapped batteries from another source and included them with your Lead battery load for recycling, if Lithium batteries or other non-conforming batteries are found on that shipment, you will be held accountable.  

To avoid fines and additional costs for disposal of non-conforming batteries, shippers should inspect the batteries they plan to recycle.  If Lithium and other off-chemistry batteries are discovered, they need to be segregated and properly disposed of according to federal and state hazardous waste and/or universal waste regulations. 

Because Lead batteries have become such a success story in the recycling world, some people handling batteries believe all batteries can be recycled in similar fashion. This is not the case.  Taking the extra care and time to identify the types of batteries you have to recycle could keep you and your company from receiving hefty fines or expensive disposal costs, and keeps everyone safer within the entire battery recycling process. 

Lithium batteries that have made their way into the lead battery recycling process. These batteries were intercepted before they got into the breaker. Photos courtesy of RSR (Revere Smelting and Refining).

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