A new memo from the U.S. EPA clarifies that upon disposal, most end-of-life lithium-ion batteries “are likely hazardous waste” and can be managed as such until they reach the proper recycling or discard destination.
The memo doesn’t change any rules for how batteries are regulated. However, it does clarify that the existing universal waste and recycling regulations for most battery types under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act also apply to lithium-ion batteries. The EPA considers many lithium-ion batteries hazardous when disposed partly because of their “ignitability and reactivity.”
The memo stresses the importance of recycling lithium-ion batteries “wherever possible” as long as the material is safely managed, saying the process “conserves critical minerals and other valuable materials that are used in batteries and is a more sustainable approach than disposal.”
Certain recyclers that store these batteries as hazardous waste before recycling must obtain a RCRA Part B permit, the EPA says. However, tasks like removing the batteries from devices, disassembling them into cells or discharging batteries do not require a RCRA hazardous waste treatment permit when a facility does these tasks to prepare the batteries for recycling.
States may have additional, more stringent requirements for these and other lithium-ion battery management tasks, the EPA memo said.
When originally written, universal waste regulations for batteries did not have lithium-ion versions in mind, said David Wagger, chief scientist and director of environmental management at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Such batteries were commercialized starting in the 1990s.
The EPA says the clarification was needed because of “recent interest” in how to manage lithium-ion batteries at end of life. A growing number of the batteries are being manufactured and included in everything from electric vehicles to scooters and personal electronics.
At the same time, more businesses are beginning to open or scale up recycling capabilities for such batteries, said Carolyn Hoskinson, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, in the memo.
“Commercial-scale metals recovery recycling plants in the US are still in development,” she wrote, “but multiple facilities are expected to be opening in the next few years, rapidly expanding domestic opportunities for recycling of lithium-ion batteries at end of life.”
The document includes information that may be familiar to existing battery recyclers or handlers, Wagger said, but might be helpful for businesses that are new to the lithium-ion battery recycling field.
Development in this field comes as the Department of Energy is working to allocate $335 million in funding for lithium-ion battery recycling, which comes from the 2021 infrastructure law. That’s in addition to about $60 million in funding for EV battery second-life applications and recycling processes.
The U.S government also sees domestic lithium-ion battery recycling, particularly for EV batteries, as an important way to secure the supply chain against trade tensions or geopolitical events such as the war in Ukraine.
The memo also reiterates safe storage practices for end-of-life lithium-ion batteries, such as providing employee safety training for how to remove or disassemble the batteries and storing batteries properly. The EPA, prompted by a provision of the infrastructure law, is also working on a best practices document for collecting batteries for recycling.
In the future, the EPA could also further examine how universal waste battery management standards apply to battery-related fires, the memo said. The waste and recycling industry has long suspected that lithium-ion batteries are a growing fire hazard because of their tendency to ignite when crushed or bent.