MADISON, Wis. — What happens to gadgets when you’re done with them? Too often, they explode.
As we enter new-gadget buying season, spare a moment to meet the people who end up handling your old stuff. Isauro Flores-Hernandez, who takes apart used smartphones and tablets for a living, keeps thick gloves, metal tongs and a red fireproof bin by his desk at Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor. He uses them to whisk away devices with batteries that burst into flames when he opens them for recycling.
One corner of his desk is charred from an Apple iPhone that began smoking and then exploded after he opened it in 2016. Last year, his co-worker had to slide away an exploding iPad battery and evacuate the area while it burned out.
Around the world, garbage trucks and recycling centers are going up in flames. The root of the problem: volatile lithium-ion batteries sealed inside our favorite electronics from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and more. They’re not only dangerous but also difficult to take apart — making e-waste less profitable, and contributing to a growing recycling crisis.
These days, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are in smartphones, tablets, laptops, ear buds, toys, power tools, scooters, hoverboards and e-cigarettes.
For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain cobalt, often mined in inhumane circumstances in places like the Congo. And when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached. Remember Samsung’s exploding Note 7 smartphone? That was a lithium-ion thermal event.
Old devices end up in trouble when we throw them in the trash, stick them in the recycling bin, or even responsibly bring them to an e-waste center. There isn’t official data on these fires, but the anecdotal evidence is stark. Since the spring of 2018 alone, batteries have been suspected as the cause of recycling fires in New York, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. In California, a recent survey of waste management facilities found 83 percent had at least one fire over the last two years, of which 40 percent were caused by lithium-ion batteries.
Statistically, the fire rates are low — 1 out of 3,000 mobile device batteries that Cascade handles experiences a thermal event. But when batteries spark other material, the result can be catastrophic. In 2016, the Shoreway Environmental Center that serves Silicon Valley suffered a 4-alarm fire it suspects was caused by a lithium-ion battery that went undetected amid other junk in its sorting systems. The fire damage cost $8.5 million.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. People shouldn’t carelessly throw battery-powered electronics into the bin. Local governments haven’t figured out good ways for us to hand off this common but dangerous material. The tech press (including me) should write less about shiny new things and more about how to make old stuff last longer. Some gadget makers, including Apple, are taking steps to make recycling easier.
But ultimately, this is an environmental problem of the tech industry’s own design. And it’s time they own it.
It’s bad enough that lithium-ion batteries are dangerous. But often, gadgets designed to be thin and portable make the batteries especially difficult to remove.
Gadgets don’t have to be designed this way. In 2014, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone had a rechargeable battery that could be easily removed. My old PalmPilot used two AAA alkaline batteries that just pop out. Removable batteries could have helped Apple avoid the debacle in which it got caught slowing iPhones with worn-out batteries — and then had to offer discounted battery replacements to get back in our good graces.
The sealed approach makes electronics thinner, which the companies say we want — removable batteries require additional shielding that takes up space. Sealing in a battery with a life span of just a few years is also a way to force customers to upgrade, though tech giants have said they’re not baking planned obsolescence into their designs.
Apple wouldn’t answer my questions on its practices.
Other tech companies could take a lesson from HP, awarded an A by Greenpeace for product life extension. It makes products that are easily upgraded and taken apart (including laptops and tablets with replaceable batteries) and it shares repair and disassembly instructions widely.
So as a gadget reviewer, let me say this clearly to the tech industry: Give up your thin obsession. We’ll happily take electronics with a little extra junk in the trunk if it means we can easily replace batteries to make them last longer — and feel more confident they won’t end up igniting a recycling inferno.