Updated April 27, 2022, for internationalization.
Fact: bears eat beets. Another (not so fun) fact: Worldwide, most countries don’t regulate the disposal of small, household quantities of batteries. In the US, the EPA lets each state decide what’s permissible to chuck into your regular ol’ waste bin. Yup, that’s the same waste bin that’s chock full of your paper, pizza boxes, dirty napkins, and other combustible matter. So let’s help avoid some post-repair trash fires—by recycling batteries, instead of tossing them in your (surprisingly flammable) trash bin.
Why should you care? Trash is trash, right? Not quite…
Remember when the batteries in Note7 devices started spontaneously combusting a few years ago? It was such a hot mess that domestic airports banned passengers from bringing their Note7’s onto all U.S. flights. That’s because lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous—and that’s all lithium-ion batteries, not just the batteries inside the Note7.
Lithium-ion batteries can be found in a wide variety of everyday devices—from smartphones to electric cars, to e-cigs and children’s toys. And the chemistry inside these batteries is pretty delicate for such commonplace devices—anything from contaminated chemical makeup, to poor manufacturing or excessive heat, can cause a runaway reaction resulting in explosion. When a Li-ion battery is punctured, it can short-circuit, causing a drastic rise in temperature—and higher temperatures can ignite anything in the battery’s reach.
When batteries attack
Now imagine throwing your old iPhone battery into your waste bin. From there, it’s loaded onto the back of a truck where it’s jostled around under direct sunlight until it reaches its destination. Too much heat or pressure can cause your battery to spark—which can set fire to everything in the back of the truck. This happens more often than you’d think. In fact, lithium-ion batteries are one of the leading causes of recycling truck fires. Recyclers estimate that lithium-ion batteries are responsible for 80-90% of their fires now. In one instance, a battery fire at a recycling facility in Queens burned for two straight days and shut down four branches along the Long Island Rail Road for several hours. If that doesn’t terrify you, this footage should:
Battery fires can be devastating—and we Californians are already dealing with one of the worst fire seasons in our history.
Plus, even if a lithium-ion battery does make it through the garbage sorting process unscathed, it’ll likely end up in a landfill where it will leach toxic metals into the environment, contaminate the soil, and eventually make its way into our water supply. That’s a huge problem, potentially a 157 million pound problem—the number of pounds of lithium-ion batteries sold to the U.S. in 2017 alone. (That’s 1.3 Titanics of toxic explosion-potential.)
The right way to recycle your iPhone battery
For the love of whatever you find holy, please safely dispose of your old lithium-ion batteries. Here’s what to do after you finish a battery replacement:
- If the battery is intact with no signs of damage: Find a battery collection point near you—to help, we’ve got an international list of locators. If you can’t make it to a receptacle right away, be sure to store your battery in a cool, dry place that’s free from static and sharp objects.
- If the battery is swollen: Make a fireproof container out of a metal bucket or can with sand in it. Keep the swollen battery in the container until you can take it to a recycling center. Don’t store a swollen battery with other batteries, or with anything else that might catch fire.
- If the battery is punctured during removal and there’s no flame: Place it into an aforementioned fireproof container (alone, without anything else flammable, preferably outside) until you can bring it to a recycling center. Ventilate your space, because the gases released by punctured lithium-ion batteries are toxic.
- If there’s a flame: Douse it with a Class B fire extinguisher, a CO2 and ABC dry chemical, powdered graphite, copper powder, or soda (sodium carbonate). If there’s no extinguisher present, use dry sand or dry table salt. Once the reaction has stabilized, use the bucket-o-sand trick to store the battery until it can be safely delivered to a recycling center. Of course, if the reaction doesn’t stabilize or if something else catches fire, call your local fire department for help.
In spite of their ubiquity, batteries can be scary, and manufacturers certainly aren’t making their removal any easier. But forewarned is forearmed, so congrats! Equipped with this knowledge, you can get future fixing done responsibly by disposing of your old batteries safely. And help us spread the word about safe recycling by hitting that Share button below—before a battery fire spreads it for you!
Correction: The first version of this article recommended putting a swollen battery in a bucket of salt water for a couple of days. Although this method is proven to help discharge lithium-ion batteries, its overall effectiveness is still under review. That makes using a fireproof container the only established method for safely storing swollen Li-ion batteries at this time.