Lithium ion batteries: High-tech's latest mountain of waste

Dell plans to recycle however many of the 4.1 million recalled batteries that customers turn in (see Dell battery recall not likely to have big environmental impact), but what happens to the other 2 billion lithium ion batteries which will be sold this year? Most will last for 300 to 500 full recharges (one to three years of use) before failing and ending up in your local municipal landfill or incinerator.

Is that a bad thing? No... and yes.

According to the U.S. government, lithium ion batteries aren't an environmental hazard. "Lithium Ion batteries are classified by the federal government as non-hazardous waste and are safe for disposal in the normal municipal waste stream," says Kate Krebs at the National Recycling Coalition. While other types of batteries include toxic metals such as cadmium, the metals in lithium ion batteries - cobalt, copper, nickel and iron - are considered safe for landfills or incinerators (Interestingly enough, lithium ion batteries contain an ionic form of lithium but no lithium metal).

But that doesn't mean Americans should be dumping 2 billion batteries per year into the waste stream.

Europeans have a dimmer view of landfilling lithium ion batteries. "There is always potential contamination to water because they contain metals," says Daniel Cheret, general manager at Belgium-based Umicore Recycling Solutions. The bigger issue is a moral one: the products have a recycling value, so throwing away 2 billion batteries a year is just plain wasteful - especially when so many American landfills are running out of space. "It’s a pity to landfill this material that you could recover," Charet says. He estimates that between 8,000 and 9,000 tons of cobalt is used in the manufacture of lithium ion batteries each year. Each battery contains 10 to 13% cobalt by weight. Umicore recyles all four metals used in lithium ion batteries.

The reason why more lithium ion batteries aren't recycled boils down to simple economics: the scrap value of batteries doesn't amount to much - perhaps $100 per ton, Cheret says. In contrast, the cost of collecting, sorting and shipping used batteries to a recycler exceeds the scrap value, so batteries tend to be thrown away. Unfortunately, the market does not factor in the social cost of disposal, nor does it factor in the fact that recycling metals such as cobalt has a much lower economic and environmental cost than mining raw materials. So we throw them away by the millions.

As in many areas of environmental protection, the European Union is far ahead of the U.S., having passed a battery recycling law that will require vendors to reclaim for recycling a minimum of 25% of the batteries they manufacture and sell - including lithium ion. It's a shame we can't provide economic incentives to do the same on this side of the pond.

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