This entry discusses the hazardous waste issues surrounding the disposal and recycling of power cells and batteries, whether tiny cells for your wristwatch or mammoth batteries from an EV. Q&As include:
- What’s the difference between a “cell” and a “battery?”
- Do common household power cells require hazardous waste disposal?
- What is universal waste?
- How does universal waste differ from hazardous waste?
- How do you dispose of household amounts of spent common power cells?
- How do you dispose of large amounts of spent common power cells?
- How should end-of-life automotive EV batteries be disposed of?
- Do all EVs use the same kind of battery?
- By what methods are EV batteries recycled?
- Where can you get help managing large amounts of spent power cells or batteries?
What’s the difference between a “cell” and a “battery?”
This is an important distinction—although knowing it won’t make you an irresistible conversationalist at cocktail parties. That said: be aware that although these two words are often used interchangeably, a cell and a battery are two different things. To wit:
- An electric storage “cell” is a single power-generating component made up of three parts: an electrolyte sandwiched between two electrodes. An AAA cell is a good example.
- A battery is a group of cells, the word “battery” being a synonym for “group.” The 12-volt lead acid battery under the hood of your Subaru is composed of six cells, each nominally producing two volts. So, it’s a “battery” of cells.
Do common household power cells require hazardous waste disposal?
You’d think this would be an easy yes-no answer. But as with all things EPA, complications abound. Consider:
From ‘D’ to ‘AAA’, the kinds of power cells that motivate things like your flashlight, TV remote, blood pressure monitor, and fully automatic swizzle stick are considered by the EPA to be a category of something called “universal waste.”
What is universal waste?
We were anticipating you’d ask that. The prosaic answer is anything that’s listed in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Therein, in Part 273, reside five types of universal waste. Batteries are one of them because they contain lithium, silver ion, nickel, cadmium, mercury-oxide, or sealed lead-acid. (See source).
[In case you’re interested: the other four categories of universal waste are pesticides, lamps (e.g., fluorescents), aerosol cans, and things that contain mercury (e.g., thermometers)].
How does universal waste differ from hazardous waste?
If the constituents of universal waste are themselves either listed or characteristic RCRA wastes per Q.3, then shouldn’t “universal wastes” themselves be similarly categorized? Logic might point in that direction. However…
These five kinds of waste are so ubiquitous in the environment, and they’re generated by so many entities big and small (from single-parent households to ginormous industrial plants), that imposing the full breadth of hazmat regulations upon them would be so onerous as to invite noncompliance.
Thus, the EPA created the Universal Waste subcategory for certain kinds of hazardous waste that are commonly generated by households, businesses, and industry—along with regulations to streamline the hazardous waste management rules that surround them.
The EPA says it did so to promote the collection and recycling of universal waste, encourage the development of municipal and commercial programs to reduce the amount of universal waste that’s landfilled or incinerated, and ease the regulatory burden on retail stores and other generators needing to collect and transport such waste to a treatment facility.
And we believe them.
How do you dispose of household amounts of spent common power cells?
Not to belabor the point, but recall that universal wastes, in this case power cells, are nonetheless hazardous wastes. So, they cannot be disposed of in the trash and consequently show up in landfills.
Generally, communities require you to take household hazardous wastes to specified collection points, which will send the waste to a destination facility for proper treatment or disposal; or they might have one-day collection events in spring, summer, or fall.
How do you dispose of large amounts of spent common power cells?
Universal waste must go to a “destination facility,” which is an entity designated to treat and dispose of universal waste—and manage it in accordance with the requirements and conditions of their hazardous waste facility permit.
Two examples of destination facilities are hazardous waste landfills and hazardous waste recycling facilities. But you just can’t shovel a ton of spent AAA cells into the trunk of your car and toddle on down to a destination facility. Instead, you need to employ the services of a universal waste handler that specializes in collecting, storing, receiving, and shipping universal wastes, which brings us to the place where it’s our habit to advise: Get expert advice.
How should end-of-life automotive EV batteries be disposed of?
This is an unappreciated question among the eco-cognoscenti, because along with the prickly fact that producing EV batteries requires untoward amounts of oil and gasoline, dead ones will release problematic toxins if landfilled, including heavy metals. And recycling EV batteries isn’t as simple as tossing your empty Perrier bottle into the blue bin instead of the tan one. Why?
The individual cells of these batteries are bonded to one another with strong glues that make them difficult to separate. Cut too deeply into an individual cell and it can quickly become a bad actor: combusting, exploding, releasing toxic gases, and otherwise becoming very eco-naughty.
Adding to the problem: EV batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction. So, each requires its own recycling protocol, making it difficult to create efficient recycling systems.
Do all EVs use the same kind of battery?
No. There are basically four kinds of “energy storage systems” used in EVs.
- Lithium-Ion batteries (Li-ion) are common in portable electronics (e.g., cell phones and laptops). Most EVs use them, but the chemical composition is different from what’s inside your iPhone. Although relatively expensive, they pack a lot of energy for their size & weight, with comparatively good high-temperature performance, and have a low self-discharge rate (meaning they don’t go dead while sitting around doing nothing). Most Li?ion components are recyclable, but as noted, the recovery cost can be a deal-killer.
- Nickel-metal hydride batteries (NiMH) are typically found in computer and medical equipment. Automotive versions are used to provide electricity for hybrid vehicles in lieu of the lead-acid kind, mostly because they have a longer life cycle and can take more abuse. Unfortunately, NiMH batteries are expensive, prone to self-discharge, and generate a lot of heat.
- Lead-acid batteries are what we’re accustomed to finding beneath the hoods of our cars (or in the trunk or under the seat, depending on your ride). They’re inexpensive, safe, reliable, and can be designed for high power. However, a low power-to-weight ratio, poor cold-temperature performance, and short charging-cycle curtail their use for motivating a car forward (i.e., traction). So, they’re typically relegated to powering electrical components specific to ICEs, such as the starter motor.
- Ultracapacitors are neither cells nor batteries. They store energy in a polarized liquid between an electrode and an electrolyte—but only for a short time. Thus, they can’t be the main power source in a vehicle. Instead, they’re used as secondary energy-sources, providing EVs with a surge of additional current to accelerate or go uphill. They’re also useful in regenerative technologies, e.g., harvesting braking energy.
By what methods are EV batteries recycled?
There are two or three recycling methods for batteries depending on how you count. Two are polar opposites and the third is a conglomeration of the previous two.
- Smelting is an eco-embarrassment for being energy?intensive. It uses high temperatures to recover basic elements from Li-ion and NiMH batteries. Organic materials are burned off, leaving valuable metals for later refining. Any other materials (e.g., lithium) are contained in the remaining “slag,” which can be used as an additive in other products (e.g., concrete).
- Direct recovery is a low-temperature process with less-prodigious energy requirements but labor-intense. Batteries of one or another kind are disassembled into thousands of cells, which are then treated with supercritical CO2, an industrial solvent, to extract the electrolytes. The cells are then disassembled, broken, and sorted in order to collect reusable materials.
- Intermediate processes might accept multiple kinds of batteries at the same time and use both direct recovery and smelting methods at different operational points to collect valuable recyclables.
Where can you get help managing large amounts of spent power cells or batteries?
Hazardous Waste Experts offers you decades of nationwide experience helping industries and organizations dispose of all kinds of universal waste—safely and conveniently. Depend on us for custom, sustainable solutions built on best practices for universal-waste handling, both onsite and offsite.
Contact us today. And thank you for reading our blog!