Exploding lithium-ion batteries are leading to more fires in Oregon’s landfills and recycling centers, prompting action from state and local governments.
Deschutes County Solid Waste Director Tim Brownell said his county’s landfill has seen 21 lithium-related fires in the past three months. Staff went from seeing battery fires once a month to multiple times a week.
“(Lithium batteries) are everywhere in the system,” Brownell said. “It’s a public safety concern and it’s a concern for the infrastructure that are taxpayer investments.”
Lithium batteries can be found in a variety of household objects, ranging from cars to power tools and from e-bikes to birthday cards that play music when opened. When run over by tractors or crushed in a trash compactor, they have the potential to explode and catch fire.
Because of this, the batteries are considered hazardous and aren’t allowed in the landfill. Many end up there anyway. Brownell said many people simply don’t know that they shouldn’t throw the batteries in the garbage.
In some cases, it’s leading to potentially dangerous situations. On multiple occasions, garbage trucks have arrived at the Deschutes County landfill with a fire smoldering in the back, Brownell said.
It’s unclear how many injuries these types of fires have caused in Oregon.
As for which objects are causing fires, Brownell has seen cellphones, tablets and large batteries found in e-bikes and cars. Those larger ones are of particular concern because the fires are bigger.
“You might get flames that are three or four feet up in the air,” Brownell said. “Once you get flames like that, you start to get concerned about it starting to catch the adjacent materials around it.”
Battery fires aren’t a new issue.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a report in 2021 analyzing the impact of these batteries on fires in waste management facilities. The agency found 245 separate fires across 28 states, some of which led to entire buildings burning down. Recycling centers were at particular risk of fire damage.
The report mentioned Pacific Coast Shredding in Vancouver, Washington, which reported multiple lithium fires. In 2019, a car went through an automobile shredder and caught fire, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
The problem appears to be worsening, which Brownell said could be related to lithium batteries appearing more widely in the marketplace. Reuters reported earlier this year that demand for lithium batteries is on the rise, with the market in the U.S. expected to rise six times by 2030.
State agencies have started taking notice. Earlier this year, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office started tracking fires stemming from lithium battery explosions, according to spokesperson Alison Green.
Green said it’s still early to pull any findings from the data. The agency collects data on all structural fires in the state, and Green said the agency’s hoping to understand how often lithium batteries are causing fires, what’s causing them to explode and how that can be prevented.
At this early stage, it’s still unclear how many fires lithium batteries are causing in Oregon. Brownell said more data is key to getting the public to understand the severity of the problem.
“If we’re going to speak publicly about it, we have to get a better sense of how often it is happening,” Brownell said.
Brownell said people looking to throw away lithium batteries should bring them directly to the landfill, where operators can discard them properly.
He said he hopes, in the future, “people who put (lithium batteries) into the marketplace bear some of the responsibility” for the fires.