Waste service providers are participating in a national campaign to educate customers on proper battery disposal and recycling protocol.

This is particularly important since China imposed restrictions on importing waste at the start of the year, and local hauler Recology previously exported up to 75 percent of its materials. Since then, lithium battery fires in popular consumer products including cars, laptops and cellphones have continued to garner attention. The Federal Aviation Administration has recorded at least 16 lithium battery-related incidents since the start of the year, for example.

“These devices are essential for modern convenience, but they do come with dangers so we need to get our hands around how to handle these materials at the end of their useful life,” said Rethink Waste Executive Director Joe La Mariana, previously the San Mateo county’s solid waste and environmental services manager. “Even when they’re at the end of their useful life, they have a small charge and can start a fire. That can be a real problem.”

La Mariana would know. He said his plant burnt down due to a battery issue in September 2016, causing  $8.5 million in damage at Rethink Waste, which is a joint powers authority of 12 public agencies in San Mateo County. It could have been worse, he said.

“We were very, very lucky that all 30 people evacuated exactly as their safety plans dictated. No one was hurt, thankfully. We were only dealing with a fire that affected the facility itself, not human life,” La Mariana said.

Still, mistakes are easy to make. When batteries are not disposed of properly, they can make it into waste management facilities where they can be inadvertently crushed, sparking a fire. La Mariana said that the number of lithium batteries making it into local waste facilities has more than doubled of late.

“The dangers facilities face is when they’re tossed in and they get lost and are crushed or puncture in the general management of that waste, creating some of the fires we’ve seen in those facilities,” said Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, Inc., which works to provide no-cost battery recycling to U.S. and Canadian consumers. “This is not a one-off instance.”

Lithium battery fires at waste facilities have occurred in Texas, New York and other locations across the country.

“There’s such a proliferation of tools and recreational devices that use this power source, but the societal benefits end when the product life ends,” La Mariana said.

What’s a Coastside customer to do? It depends on your waste management service provider.

Recology of the Coast General Manager Chris Crescio Gabrielli said household batteries placed in a Ziplock bag and left on top of the recycling cart are accepted curbside during regular pick-up days. Auto and cellphone batteries need a little extra help. They’re accepted at the company’s recycling yard at 1046 Palmetto Ave. in Pacifica. It’s open Tuesdays and Thursdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and Saturdays between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Other types of rechargeable batteries are not accepted.

Republic Services website directs customers to place household batteries in a clear Ziplock bag on top of the recycling container on scheduled collection days. Lithium batteries need to be taped, but not together.

“Do not place batteries and cellphones inside the container,” the website reads. “You can also drop off your used household batteries and cellphones at our Republic Services offices (1680 Edgeworth Ave., Daly City). Proof of residency is required for drop off.”

Smith and La Mariana offered other suggestions, including disposing of batteries at household hazardous waste facilities and other major home improvement retailers like Home Depot. Learn more at www.smchealth.org/hhw, www.rethinkwaste.org/batteries and www.call2recycle.org/locator.

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