Photo/IllutrationBurned lithium-ion batteries from a heated tobacco device, right, and from small home electrical appliances (Akemi Kanda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Lithium-ion batteries left inside devices thrown out as unburnable garbage are causing an increasing number of fires at recycling facilities.

The batteries, installed in many cordless electronic devices and home electrical appliances, can ignite when the flammable organic solvent in them comes under strong pressure.

Lithium battery makers and manufacturers of devices that use them have been required to collect and recycle them since 2001.

But people often leave the batteries in their unwanted electronic devices when they put them out to be collected for recycling or mix with unburnable garbage and used plastic containers.

As e-cigarettes and other devices that use built-in lithium-ion batteries become more popular, more are being tossed out for recycling, leading to a higher risk of fire if their batteries are not removed first.

Though local garbage collectors and recycling operators sort the waste, it's impossible to guarantee they will spot every battery in it.

Garbage is crushed and sorted into metal, plastic and burnable garbage, which is then recycled or burned.

When crushed, lithium-ion batteries mixed with the waste have burst into flames or spewed smoke.

In fiscal 2019, recycling facilities for plastic containers reported 230 incidents of smoke or fires by the end of December, according to the Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association.

In fiscal 2013, only 32 incidents were reported.

The association surveyed 900 members of local governments on their experiences with smoke and fire at recycling facilities.

Incidents involving fires and smoke have climbed steadily, the data showed. The annual number of cases stood at between 40 and 49 in the years from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2016.

In fiscal 2017, cases reached 56, and hit 130 in fiscal 2018.

More than 70 percent of all reports of smoke or flames that occurred in fiscal 2018 and 2019 are thought to have been caused by lithium-ion batteries.

Responding to the growing concerns of local governments and recycling operators over the danger from the batteries, the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said they intend to provide clearer instructions on how citizens should dispose of electronic devices and spread awareness on the fire hazard the batteries pose.

Batteries igniting not only risks injuring workers that handle or sort garbage, but can throw a wrench into the entire recycling process.

On Nov. 13 last year, a fire broke out at the conveyor connecting the machine for crushing garbage to one for sorting it into metal and plastic waste at a recycling center in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture.

Extensive damage to the building has forced the recycling section of unburnable and oversized trash to close until at least the end of March for repairs.

Though the fire's cause has not been officially determined, statements from the Ichinomiya government, fire department and police identified lithium-ion batteries as the prime suspect.

Between fiscal 2017 and 2018, firefighters were called six times to extinguish blazes involving batteries at Tokyo's Musashino Clean Center garbage-disposal facility.

Musashino city has since the summer of 2018 instructed more strictly trash collectors picking up unburnable garbage, containers, packages and plastics to open garbage bags to check for batteries before they throw them into the garbage truck.

The city collects lithium-ion batteries and small electronic devices powered by built-in batteries, which are difficult for users to remove themselves, as “dangerous and harmful waste.”

It collects such waste separately from other unburnable garbage.

The Tobacco Institute of Japan said it will start collecting unwanted heated tobacco devices, such as “glo” and “Ploom,” at some tobacco shops in the Tokyo metropolitan area starting in February. It intends to expand the campaign across the nation this year.