Current Issue

Back to ARA Magazine

Battery Processes: Get the Lead Out

Lead batteries continue to be a recycling success story in the United States and abroad. In fact, according to a National Recycling Rate Study commissioned by Battery Council International (BCI) in 2017, more than 99 percent of Lead batteries are recycled. This is equivalent to about 4 billion pounds of lead batteries recycled every year.

As successful as the lead battery recycling rate is, secondary lead recyclers, we as battery manufacturers and battery retailers are beginning to see more lithium and other non-conforming batteries making their way into the lead battery recycling streams.

As recently as March 23, Gopher Resource in Tampa, FL received 19 lithium batteries resembling lead batteries on a single truckload. Fortunately, the spotters were able to detect the batteries before they entered the breaking part of the process. “Had those batteries been missed by our spotter, they could have caused significant damage to our breaker or even worse, injured one of our workers,” said Ray Krantz, Director of Business Development at Gopher. “We see non-conforming batteries enter our recycling stream daily with lithium batteries coming in on a weekly basis.” Since more lithium batteries are being made to resemble lead batteries it is becoming increasingly more difficult to identify them.

In a poster entitled The Critical Identification and Separation of Lithium-Ion Batteries From collecting Lead Batteries for Recycling, published by East Penn Manufacturing, Co., it states: “Many people just don’t know the severe consequences that can occur by putting a lithium battery on a lead battery skid for recycling. Often, most don’t even recognize the visible difference between the two batteries because lithium batteries are being made to look more and more like a traditional lead battery design. “

According to a lithium battery handling policy distributed by RSR Corporation, Dallas, TX, “lithium batteries are extremely dangerous at the Lead recycler and must not be delivered by vendors or contract customers. They react violently in the battery breaking process resulting in the risk of severe human injury, explosion and fire.”

In a survey distributed by the BCI in Jan. 2018, 22 percent of the respondents said they do not provide any training to new employees for battery handling — that’s one in every five. While nearly 78 percent of the respondents said they did provide training in the on-boarding process of a new employee, 21 percent of those provided no additional training after the employee is hired.

Besides the issue of lithium batteries disrupting the lead battery recycling process, co-mingling lithium batteries with lead batteries on pallets destined for secondary lead recyclers is a strict violation of Federal Department of Transportation regulations and other hazardous waste and universal waste regulations. Fines and heavy penalties can be assessed to the shipper of the batteries who violated the regulations. When the non-conforming batteries are discovered at the secondary lead recycler they are quarantined, and then secured for shipment to a third party for proper disposal and recycling, Krantz said.

In the BCI survey, 13 percent of the respondents said their employees did not inspect all the batteries they take in, and 15 percent may not be able to identify the difference between some lithium batteries and a lead battery. So how can you tell the difference between lithium batteries and lead batteries? Probably the most obvious difference is the weight. The average weight of a lead automotive battery is about 40 lbs where a Lithium automotive battery weighs around 25 lbs. Ultimately a proper visual inspection is needed to confirm the lithium battery is not placed in the lead battery recycling stream according to Krantz. Most lead batteries will have a Pb on the label and lithium batteries should be labeled Li. But some labels can be confusing so it is important to carefully inspect the battery and label to determine if it is a lithium, lead, Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) or other battery chemistry. The terminals are also a good indicator, and sometimes there are labels and odd color battery cases Krantz said.

It is important for employees handling batteries to learn the differences. This is particularly important when 18 percent of scrap yard employees that handle batteries were unaware that lithium batteries entering the lead battery recycling process could cause life-threatening injuries. Just over 37 percent of employees and businesses are not even sure what to do with non-conforming batteries if they do come in with lead batteries they’ve purchased or otherwise received from their customers according to the survey.

Even with spotters stationed along the conveyor belt system that moves the scrap batteries into the breaker, it is still possible for lithium batteries to be missed during that review. Some lead recyclers have a metal detector set to read levels of metal that are consistent with lead batteries, but even those machines are not infallible. When a non-conforming battery with the improper metal level is detected, an alarm sounds and the conveyor belt stops. However, now a secondary lead recycler employee has to climb down to retrieve the bad battery, then get back to his post, then restart the machine. This slows the overall process, forcing hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars in down-time for the recycler.

When lithium and other non-conforming batteries are intercepted before they enter the smelting process, the lead recycler must properly dispose of those batteries which adds costs. “Fines for handling, disposal and recycling are passed back to the shipper or generator,” Krantz said. The same holds true for RSR and likely other secondary lead smelters. Shippers will be held accountable.
Properly disposing of lithium batteries could cost as much as $6.00/lb at some lead recyclers. If there is an injury or death as a result of a lithium battery exploding in the lead smelting process, legal fees and expenses could be included on top of penalties or fines back to the shipper. “Substantial resources, manpower, time and cost is employed at RSR to screen, remove and safely dispose of lithium batteries,” according to their policy.

Repeat source locations that send lithium batteries with lead batteries will be identified by lead recycling facilities and bar that shipper from further deliveries of batteries to the recycler. Even if you purchased well wrapped batteries from another source and included those in your lead battery load, if lithium batteries or other non-conforming batteries are found on that shipment, you will be held accountable.

To avoid fines and additional costs for disposal of non-conforming batteries, shippers should inspect the batteries they plan to recycle. If lithium and other off-chemistry batteries are discovered, they need to be segregated and properly disposed of according to federal and state hazardous waste and/or universal waste regulations. If you are unsure about what to do with lithium and other non-conforming batteries, contact Interstate Batteries Recycling toll-free at 888-872-4001.

Because lead batteries have become such a success story in the recycling world, some people handling them believe all batteries can be recycled in similar fashion. This is not the case. Taking the extra care and time to identify the types of batteries you have to recycle could keep you and your company from receiving hefty fines, penalties or expensive disposal costs, and keeps everyone safer within the entire battery recycling process. n

By Tod Lyons

Tod A. Lyons is a Senior Manager at Interstate Batteries Recycling, LLC.



Lithium-ion Batteries: All types of lithium batteries were recently designated as “Dangerous Goods” with shipping restrictions. Automotive large format batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles will be either Nickel Metal Hydride or Lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries have higher energy densities than lead-acid batteries or nickel-metal hydride batteries. Having a high energy density means that the battery can store more electricity in the same size cell. It follows, then, that with the same amount of electricity it is possible to make the battery smaller. This is why the lithium-ion battery is ideal for being a battery on an electric vehicle, since it is compact and lightweight.

A battery with high capacity is indispensable for improving acceleration and fuel efficiency for hybrid vehicles. This hybrid Li-Ion battery delivers twice the power compared to similarly sized conventional cells. As the output of the battery increases, so too does the acceleration. It also more efficiently stores energy during deceleration, further improving fuel efficiency.

Most batteries are considered hazardous materials (also called dangerous goods,) and are subject to regulations issued by the DOT and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The U.S. DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) works to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials – including batteries – shipped by highway, rail, water, or air.

The U.S. and international regulations pertaining to the transportation of lithium (metal) cells and batteries and lithium ion cells and batteries have changed significantly over the past five years. Tests based on UN Manual of Tests and Criteria must be performed as identified in 49 CFR 173.185 and the ICAO Technical Instructions, Packing Instruction 903, and Special Provision A45. The regulations also apply to cells and batteries that are packed with or contained in equipment.

Most consumer-type lithium metal batteries and lithium ion batteries do not require fully regulated markings, labels, and shipping papers. However, the ICAO Technical Instructions contain limited marking, shipping paper, and packaging requirements for packaging that contain more than 12 batteries or 24 cells. Larger cells and batteries must be shipped as fully regulated hazardous materials. This means that shippers of larger cells and batteries must comply with specific labeling, marking, packaging, shipping paper, and employee training requirements.

For more information call the Hazardous Materials regulations, visit the web site at