Take Charge Campaign: ‘Zombie Batteries’ cause an increase of fires at UK waste facilities

Consumers across the UK are being urged to recycle batteries responsibly as part of the national ‘Take Charge’ campaign – re-launched by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) alongside its members and the compliance scheme Ecosurety. It aims to reduce the growing number of fires started by discarded lithium-ion batteries.

Used Lithium-Ion DevicesThe campaign, running from 24 October until 7 November, delivers its message through  a range of visual content. ESA also highlights that it will persuade stakeholders in the recycling and waste industry to share the campaign across their social media channels.

Following its launch, a range of ‘content will be made available for permanent use – including signage for Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs), bin-hangers and posters.

Campaign messages include calls for consumers to only recycle batteries – and electronic devices containing batteries – using specialist recycling services. Further, it reminds the public to never throw batteries away alongside general rubbish or other recycling due to the fire risk.

According to ESA, when ‘dead’ batteries – labelled ‘zombie batteries’ by the campaign – are thrown away with general rubbish, or mixed with other recycling, they can easily become damaged causing them to ignite or explode once collected.

This is especially the case with high-powered lithium-ion batteries, most commonly found in products including phones, laptops, power tools, electric toothbrushes, bluetooth devices, childrens’ toys, e-bikes, scooters and vape devices.

An independent report published by Eunomia in 2021 concluded that nearly 50 per cent of all recycling and waste fires in the UK are started by lithium-ion batteries alone, and that the total cost of these fires to the country exceeds £150 million each year.

From this, Eunomia research estimated that just over 200 fires at UK recycling and waste management facilities are caused by batteries each year. However, the ESA says this is ‘likely to be an underestimate’ as local authorities and recycling and waste management companies reported an increase in the problem in 2022.battery fires.

‘Informal reporting’ highlighted by the ESA suggests that the annual number of battery fires could be three times higher than Eunomia estimates, with hundreds more fires occurring in recycling and waste management facilities and collection vehicles.

In July, not-for-profit Material Focus identified that over 600 fires in waste trucks and sites are caused by batteries that haven’t been removed from electricals and that 48 per cent of all waste fires in the UK each year are caused by Lithium-ion batteries.

This highlighted that three times more fires are caused by batteries in the waste stream than previously reported, illustrating ‘the significance of the issue’.

Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Jacob Hayler said: “Since we first launched Take Charge in 2020, the number of battery-fires at recycling and waste facilities unfortunately seems to have risen considerably and is affecting all operators in the sector - not helped by the tinder-dry conditions caused by the heatwave this summer.

“These fires not only put lives at risk, but also seriously threaten vital infrastructure upon which all of us across the UK rely on every day. We urge everyone to please recycle batteries and electronic devices responsibly and help us stop waste batteries from becoming zombies.”

Mark Andrews, National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) Waste Fire Lead added: “We encourage people to Take Charge and correctly recycle batteries and electronic devices in specialist recycling services. This could significantly reduce the increasing number of challenging fires that fire and rescue services have to deal with. These can often be large-scale incidents which disrupt local communities and pose a risk to life, but they can be prevented.”

Sam Horne, Chair of the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO), which represents local councils, also said: “We know that residents are keen to recycle and sometimes this results in the wrong things ending up in the wrong place. Unfortunately, where this includes batteries being placed in the residual
or recycling streams it can have serious implications.

“It puts the lives of staff working in facilities at risk as well as the facilities themselves, which has major implications for services and ultimately impacts residents through delayed and missed collections as the whole system can be impacted.  We support this essential campaign that encourages residents to dispose of batteries via appropriate routes.”

Stephanie Housty, Marketing and Sustainability Manager at Ecosurety commented: “Most citizens want to do their bit and recycle, but often need guidance to do it properly, especially for batteries and small WEEE with embedded batteries. Following on our long-standing commitment to increase recycling, it was important for Ecosurety to get behind this campaign and drive up the public awareness of the growing Lithium batteries fires issue to nudge consumers to dispose of batteries and small electrical devices safely.”