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What do we do with old lithium-ion batteries?

Cordless appliances are handy and popular, but they’re powered by lithium-ion batteries, which are hard to recycle. Are we storing up the next environmental disaster?

Do you have a box of old gadgets in the loft? A drawer where you keep mobile phones you no longer use? These all contain lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are widespread, and increasingly so. They power cordless appliances which are are handy and popular. They’re with us throughout the day; from brushing your teeth in the morning to setting the alarm on your mobile phone at night.

In fact, there are on average, 11 Li-ion devices in every household of Which? members who responded to our survey – that’s the equivalent of 295m in the UK.

According to our latest research, these devices are also widely kept by their owners after they’ve been replaced – nearly half (48%) keep hold of them, which prevents them from being used or recycled.

What are the issues?

Though cordless devices are convenient and easy to use, we’ve found that they’re not necessarily better than their corded cousins, and have a significant environmental impact. That goes for both their manufacturing and their ability to be recycled.

The UK is the second-biggest market in Europe for Li-ion batteries after Germany, but lacks the raw materials to manufacture them, and the facilities to recycle them.

It’s common for these type of batteries to actually be sealed into appliances, which means that if the battery fails, that’s your lot – the entire thing is useless.

What to do with your old devices

So what should you do with your old Li-ion batteries to help prevent the impact? Firstly, don’t put them in the bin!

Consider giving them to friends or family, or using online services such as Freecycle to to swap them. You could also donate them to charity.

Re-using or recycling them helps build a more circular economy and reduces our reliance on raw materials.

Fortunately, we are starting to recycle Li-ion devices. In 2017, the government set up the ‘Farafay Battery Challenge‘ – £246m to develop new tech to increase recyclability and re-use.

How many lithium-ion batteries do you think you own? Are you hoarding any in devices that you don’t use any more? And what are your tips for recycling them?

Comments

One of the problems with rechargeable products containing lithium-ion and other batteries is that the battery cannot be replaced easily by the user. The most popular brands of smartphones do not offer phones with user-replaceable batteries, and there are other products (e.g. electric toothbrushes and shavers) that are similar. That can result in scrapping products that are otherwise in useable condition and of course that will prevent passing good batteries on for others to use. I presume that if products containing the batteries are taken to a recycling centre, the batteries will be recovered and recycled appropriately.

I would like to see Which? campaigning against sale of goods with batteries that cannot readily be replaced by the user.

Lithium batteries can cause fires if physically damaged or short-circuited and since they can hold a charge for extended periods should be treated with care.

Thanks for what could be a very interesting Conversation, Sarah. There is a small typo in the link to the Faraday Battery Challenge.

Which? should be joining forces with their European (and other) sister organisations to campaign for repairable products, including replaceable batteries.

Sarah, will Which? be doing this?

Go to it malcolm !! with you all the way.

Patrick Taylor says:
5 August 2018

“Faraday Institution
The Faraday Institution is a £78 million research institute that will accelerate the fundamental research needed for future battery development.” faraday.ac.uk/

named after the £20 bank note figure who apparently was quite famous
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Faraday
“Although Faraday received little formal education, he was one of the most influential scientists in history.”

Incidentally TPMS uses lithium batteries so 4/5 to a car times 700m cars worldwide [conservatively with TPMS] will mean a steady stream of 2.8Bn dead batteries a year to be dealt with. There are two effective non-battery methods for achieving TPMS information which were not pursued by the auto industry as they can lower original production costs and make money by selling replacement sensors.

Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction in the 19th century. Rather than having a battery in each wheel to operate the electronic sensor and transmit the pressure the rotating wheel could be used to generate a small amount of power and store this in a supercapacitor. The principle would be similar to a bicycle hub ‘dynamo’ – which is actually an alternator and relies on electromagnetic induction – but much smaller. But yes, it’s a good idea to get rid of the batteries.

At one time there were dozens of shapes, sizes and voltages of battery on sale in shops but over the years the number of widely used types declined and the AA size is now the most popular, both with non-rechargeable and rechargeable batteries. Manufacturers designed their products around these batteries and in most cases they were user-replaceable. Enter the lithium-ion rechargeable battery – which is superior in most respects to what has gone before – and we now have a vast range of different batteries for use with different brands of products. Sometimes these are user-replaceable but not always.

What is needed is for a range of standard sizes and capacities of lithium batteries and for manufacturers to design their products to use only these standard sizes. The ideal situation would be to have all manufacturers of compact cameras, for example, to use the same size of battery and for them to be user-replaceable. I bought a small Panasonic Lumix camera to replace one that looked almost identical. The batteries were at first glance the same physical size, same voltage and same capacity but were not exchangeable and also needed different chargers. We are only going to make progress if legislation is introduced to standardise on types of lithium batteries and require manufacturers to design products around these types.

Some power tool manufacturers are making steps in the right direction. The same battery will power a range of tools.

Totally agree. Is this not something that Which? should be pressing for? And should not the market be open to third-party batteries instead of only factory-installed OEM units.

A battery is just a power source – it should have no influence over the software in the device.

I agree. Third party batteries are not necessarily inferior. When I bought an Olympus camera I bought a spare battery and was sent a third party one, which I had not expected. It has proved just as good as the Olympus battery and was probably cheaper.

Once we have standard designs of battery then it will become more attractive to sell third-party products, and competition will help bring down prices.

I would agree that battery standardisation would be good (and as said elsewhere, user-replace-ability almost essential), but there are of course several technical problems (there would be wouldn’t there?!). Not saying they can’t be overcome, but most solutions would stymie technological development, and some be quite compromising to safety.
One of the biggest risks to Li-Ion (and-any battery with Li I’ve seen for that matter) is charging too far or too fast. Discharging too fast is also a risk. Violating any of these risks fire and explosion. We saw it when Samsung pushed one of the boundaries too far and had to recall a load of phones a year or so ago.
To that end, a modern Li-Ion battery connected wrongly – or even a mixed batch for series charging – is a strictly forbidden option. Furthermore, one cannot rely on terminal voltage alone to determine state of charge. Battery age, temperature, number of charge cycles – and a little bit of luck – all play a part in the charge/discharge vs terminal voltage curves. It follows that bespoke charging regimes are required which need to be reset when a new set of batteries are put in (often done automatically with a detection of open circuit and a “limp charge” mode and deep discharge learning curve, with the user instruction to leave the phone plugged in for several hours).
Furthermore, to take advantage of evolving technology, battery charging is re-optimised for the later developments – and if the revised regime(s) are deployed on an older version of the battery, the latter could go bang. It follows that, for safety, a different connector (or another foolproof means to determine the revision of battery) is essential. In that way, charging regimes *which evolve as battery development evolves* can be designed in concert to get the best compromise of
a) maximum longevity
b) longest discharge time in use
c) longest discharge time in stand-by
d) fastest recharge rate
All consistent of course with absolute safety.

With the above in mind, I can understand how making battery removal not for the faint hearted has evolved – but the competent should be permitted to do it and without the need to break glue lines and the attendant use of ozone-depleting chemicals. However, much as I’d like to be able to have batteries standardised, this would stymie development of performance improvements.

It’s well worth looking at these issues because if used wrongly, lithium batteries make rather effective incendiary devices. I take your point that standardisation of batteries could impede advances in the technology but I wonder if this could be accommodated in some way, for example allowing only the latest batteries offering highest energy density and/or faster charging capability to take advantage of more rapid charging.

Years ago, I learned that lithium-ion batteries must not be fully discharged to avoid wrecking them and have seen some evidence of this with batteries that have been stored in a discharged state for an extended period. Do you know if this is still the case, Roger, and if this is controlled in the battery or the device it powers?

I have no inside knowledge. However, I do know that batteries with a particularly high power discharge density – those used in drones e.g. – should be stored at ~55% charge – and refreshed every so often – to have maximum life. They should be brought to full power only an hour or so before they are needed to avoid irreversible degradation. I expect a similar problem occurs if left flat too long too.

Development in the battery technology is still very much on the fast part of the curve.

Yes, and for long term storage it’s sometimes recommended to store lithium batteries partially charged. Searching for information I have seen plenty of reference to circuitry to prevent over-discharge of lithium-ion batteries. It appears that this can be used within the battery housing as well as inside equipment.

With NiCd and NiMH batteries consisting of two or more cells in series, damage is caused when the weakest cell discharges first and then is reverse-charged by the other cells in the battery, which soon leads to the battery becoming useless. I presume that the same would apply with a lithium battery.

However, much as I’d like to be able to have batteries standardised, this would stymie development of performance improvements.“. I agree that worthwhile development should not be hampered by an inviolate requirement to only use standard components.

However, incorporating standard components in any product should, I think, be encouraged where it is appropriate, together with standardised connections and fixings. I’d like to see many more products – domestic appliances say – to be economically repairable. Standardising decent motors, pumps, heaters, for example would be beneficial to the consumer rather than having to purchase proprietary (and often expensive) dedicated parts.

This is the case with a lot of plant, Malcolm – and to tradesmen in the know, it is so inside a lot of domestic equipment too. Case in point, the innards of several different manufacturers’ dishwashers, ovens and washing machines do actually have common pumps, valves, elements etc. However, those badged XYZ cost more…

Can we preserve the life of lithium batteries by the way in which we use them? I suspect that it is best to avoid using phones and other products until they run out of power, especially doing this on a regular basis.

“Li-ion batteries and the environment Li-ion batteries are the force behind powerful cordless products. They’re lightweight for the amount of power they contain, so they’re superior to the lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries that predated them.

The UK is the second-biggest market in Europe for Li-ion batteries, after Germany. Together, they make up 20-25% of batteries in Europe, by weight.

But currently the UK has neither the raw materials to manufacture them, nor the facilities to recycle them. As they degrade, Li-ion batteries can pose a fire and explosion risk – which is what triggered the recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 back in 2016. If they’re put into landfill, the chemicals from Li-ion batteries can leach into the soil and groundwater.

It’s not just in their disposal that Li-ion batteries create an environmental risk. There are few lithium mines in the world, and its extraction is linked to water pollution, water shortages and soil damage. The toxic chemicals used in processing it are harmful when released.

Cobalt is also vital for Li-ion batteries, and is produced in large quantities by only a handful of mines. Two thirds of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mines often rely on subsistence workers, including child labourers, according to Amnesty International.

Recycling old Li-ion batteries creates less demand for raw materials and prevents them from ending up in landfill sites.”

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/07/how-environmentally-friendly-are-cordless-products/ – Which?

It’s very encouraging to see Which? raising awareness of environmental concerns. I am disappointed to learn that the UK does not have the facilities to recycle these batteries. I wonder what happens to lithium batteries and devices containing them that are taken to a recycling centre.