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The use of lithium-ion batteries has been offering effective added value for several years now, with high energy density, low weight, and the comparatively long service life making these batteries popular energy storage devices in mobile devices and even electric vehicles. In addition to the further development of lithium-ion technology, however, the proper disposal of lithium-ion batteries and the recycling of their components must not be ignored.

As a general rule, industrial batteries may be returned to the place where they were purchased. UK manufacturers are required by law to accept the batteries they sell and to dispose of and recycle them in accordance with current regulations. In our guide, you can read what needs to be considered when disposing of lithium-ion batteries and how you can support effective recycling.

What are lithium-ion battery disposal hazards?

There are several reasons why lithium-ion batteries should not simply be disposed of in household waste or with other operational waste. One of the most important is safety: The lithium contained in the batteries is very reactive—especially with water and when the ambient temperature is too high.

If water penetrates a lithium-ion battery that has not been disposed of in accordance with regulations, or if a thermal runway occurs due to overheating, the result is a lithium fire that is very difficult to extinguish. In the process, the fluorine- and phosphorus-containing conductive compounds of the batteries can release gaseous toxins. These pose a danger to humans, animals, and the environment. For this reason, safety recommendations must be considered not only when disposing of lithium-ion batteries, but also when storing them.

Who takes care of the disposal and recycling of lithium-ion batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries can be disposed of in collection boxes at retailers where electronic devices are sold, at recycling centres, or at the take-back points of the manufacturers themselves.

In addition, batteries can be disposed of in boxes provided for this purpose or at local waste management companies. In the UK, recyclenow.com provides general information on the disposal of batteries, however, for detailed regulations it is best to contact your local council.

It may be worthwhile for businesses and companies to make use of an exemption: if you regularly need to replace a large number of rechargeable batteries, you can negotiate individual return agreements directly with the manufacturing companies, their collection points, or commercial waste battery disposal companies. They will then forward the lithium-ion batteries to the appropriate agencies so that they can be comprehensively recycled. Jungheinrich PROFISHOP also offers its customers a corresponding lithium disposal service.

If lithium-ion batteries are damaged, they must not be sent by post. This is the case if the accumulator is visibly inflated, it is leaking battery fluid, or develops heat on its own.

Disposing of lithium-ion batteries of different sizes

Lithium-ion batteries (up to 500 grams)

Before disposing of lithium-ion batteries weighing less than 500 grams, tape the terminals to prevent a short circuit. Then pack the batteries in a plastic bag and return them to the retailer or manufacturer for disposal. You can also use the recycling boxes offered by your local council for the proper disposal of lithium-ion.

Lithium-ion batteries (more than 500 grams)

These include lithium-ion batteries with a unit weight of more than 500 grams such as those used in our lithium-ion pallet trucks, in electric bicycles, or as storage modules for photovoltaic systems. Lithium-ion batteries of this size are considered hazardous goods, which is why additional safety regulations apply here for disposal and transport. For this purpose, the batteries must be placed in a separate hazardous goods container and marked “LITHIUM BATTERIES FOR DISPOSAL” or “LITHIUM BATTERIES FOR RECYCLING”. In addition, a dangerous goods approval (UN specification) including hazard label and UN number must be included.

Permanently installed batteries

Lithium-ion batteries weighing 500 grams or more are usually not permanently installed within devices. However, this is often the case with lithium batteries weighing less than 500 grams. Consumers are not obliged to remove permanently installed batteries themselves. Defective mobile devices or tools that have a permanently installed battery can be handed over to the manufacturer or dealer directly or by post. The manufacturer is then obliged to dispose of the lithium batteries in accordance with regulations.

Recycling lithium-ion batteries – a complex process

A second reason for proper disposal is that lithium-ion batteries can then be sent for recycling where valuable raw materials are recovered. However, recovery remains a technological challenge. There are many reasons for this:

  • Many different raw materials are interconnected in rechargeable batteries.
  • The structure of Lithium-ion batteries differs depending on the manufacturer, device and model.
  • As a result, uniform, automated recycling processes are rarely possible, and disassembly of the batteries is usually done by hand.

Each cell of a lithium-ion battery is made up of four components, for which different materials are possible.

ComponentPossible Materials
Positive ElectrodeLithium + Cobalt
Lithium + Manganese
Lithium + Iron
Lithium + Nickel + Cobalt + Aluminium
Lithium + Nickel + Manganese + Cobalt
Negative ElectrodeGraphite
Tin
Lithium + Titanium
ElectrolyteVarious dissolved lithium salts
SeparatorVarious porous polymers

Most valuable metals are found in the electrodes of Li-ion cells. Recovering these raw materials is possible, but not easy, as they occur in chemical compounds and form units in a very small space. Therefore, the recovery processes are complex and expensive. Nevertheless, the recycling of lithium batteries and accumulators is important in terms of environmental protection and resource conservation.

In contrast, the situation is different for the other components contained, such as the housings made of steel and plastic and cables made of copper. They can already be recycled easily.

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