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Gadgets

The secret danger behind the batteries in your phone and other electronics

Americans consume a ton of tech every year — and with every gadget we buy, we also leave behind plenty of waste. Everything we purchase ends up in the garbage at some point — but what really happens to our devices once we throw them out?

Well, for starters, they don’t exactly go away quietly. Plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle, and many gadgets contain toxic chemicals and metals that must be disposed of safely. Tap or click here for nine things you can do with your old phone instead of throwing it away.

Of all the dangerous parts found in gadgets we throw away, batteries are some of the most concerning. Waste workers have reported several occasions of disposed of batteries catching fire — which makes both their job and our lives much more dangerous. Here’s what you need to know about the rise of “zombie batteries.”

Thrown away batteries are rising from the dead

Lithium-ion batteries are essential components in many gadgets today. They’re the reason you don’t have to keep your smartphone or laptop plugged in when you’re using it — but these harmless-looking batteries have a dark secret: They’re highly flammable and notoriously hard to get rid of.

According to fire detection services manufacturer Fire Rover, fires at waste facilities have grown 26% since 2016. Ryan Fogelman, the company’s vice president for strategic partnership, believes that improperly-disposed lithium-ion batteries are the reason for the dramatic spike.

Fogelman isn’t the only one sounding the alarm about lithium-ion batteries. Speaking to The Verge, Amy Adcox, general manager of Republic Services, said discarded electronics “keeps her awake at night.” In fact, the fire risk from these zombie batteries led to her installing concrete and metal walls to contain any flames that appear.

Which batteries are sparking on their own? Believe it or not, most lithium-ion batteries are capable of catching fire — from big ones found in laptops to tiny ones found in talking greeting cards. Excessive pressure and temperature are sometimes enough to cause explosive fires and property damage.

In 2016, a waste facility in San Mateo County, Calif., experienced a four-alarm fire caused by a lithium-ion battery that made the plant unusable for several months. Damage was worsened because the burning battery was stuck on a conveyor belt — which helped it spread to more corners of the building.

If you have a device with a rechargeable battery, no matter how small or low-powered it is, you need to make sure it’s disposed of properly. If it isn’t, you could be putting workers (and neighborhoods) at risk of fire damage. All it takes is one spark from a bad battery to cause terrible destruction.

Tap or click here to see how a bad iPhone battery exploded inside of a woman’s car.

What should I do with my old devices and batteries?

Ignore the urge to put used electronics in the recycling bin. Disposing of old gadgets does involve recycling their components, but not along with paper and metal that can easily catch fire. Separate facilities that handle electronics and batteries will be your best bet for safe disposal.

Thankfully, multiple companies and retail chains offer safe recycling options for old batteries and gadgets. Here’s what you can do if you plan on ditching a well-used phone, computer or rechargeable device.

  • Find retailers that dispose of batteries safely: Companies like Home Depot, Best Buy and Apple offer recycling services that will safely get rid of your unwanted batteries and electronics. Some, like Apple, will even pay you for select gadgets depending on how new they are.
  • Find out if your community has an option for battery disposal: Some cities have dedicated drop-off spots for old electronics and batteries. Visit your city government’s website or contact them by phone to find the closest one near you.
  • Look for a local battery recycler: Call2Recycle.com offers a location search that can help you find battery recycling centers near you.
  • Avoid extreme heat or cold: Spent batteries do not age well in hot or cold climates. If you plan on disposing of old batteries, never leave them in a hot car or in direct sunlight. Keep them in a cool, dry location away from anything flammable before safely disposing of.
  • If a fire starts, avoid using water: If you find yourself in a situation with a burning battery, never try to douse it with water. The lithium metals inside the battery will react to the water and make the fire worse. Instead, use a fire extinguisher.

Battery fires are no laughing matter, and it’s our job to make sure we’re using our tech responsibly — even when we no longer plan on keeping it.

By disposing of batteries safely, you could end up saving lives and preventing millions of dollars in property damage. It may seem inconvenient, but it’s a lot better than having to put out fires — literally!

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