Tossing a Battery? You’re Risking Lives and Property Along with the Environment

Most people know that batteries are bad for the environment. What many don’t know is that discarded batteries are a growing cause of potentially fatal fires.

Lithium-ion batteries are especially risky. Because they’re so efficient, they’re used in countless rechargeable products, including smart phones, power tools, electric toothbrushes, and even robotic vacuums. But if they’re not disposed of properly, they can suddenly burst into flames — and they frequently do, endangering everyone nearby.

Last year saw the highest incidents of fire in waste-processing facilities on record. In 2021, 367 fires were reported by US and Canada waste-processing facilities. But since many fires go unreported, the real number may have been as high as 2,200, according to Fire Rover, a maker of fire safety equipment. Two people were reported killed and 37 injured.

Security video provided by ReGen Monterey shows recycling-sorting machinery at its Monterey County facility suddenly bursting into flames because of a lithium battery in the stream. Employees close to the machinery were unharmed, but such fires are happening more and more often—averaging one fire per week at their facility—and are a constant concern.

A similar fire in San Carlos in 2016 caused millions of dollars in property damage and revenue loss.

“In addition to being toxic, lithium is extremely flammable,” said Zoë Shoats, ReGen Monterey’s Director of Communications. “Our employees watch out for it vigilantly and take precautions, but we need members of the public to help protect them too.”

A lithium-ion battery can ignite simply by being broken, exposing the lithium to air. Other causes include vibration, overheating, and short circuits, among others.

It’s easy to imagine how often such things can happen in a waste facility or vehicle, where batteries may be dropped onto hard surfaces, driven over, banged, or compressed and shredded inside machines.

In addition to fire, there’s a serious associated risk from the release of toxic chemicals such as fluoride gases, as described in a 2017 article in the journal Nature.

What can be done? Luckily, one high-impact measure is now easy and free: local residents can simply put their used batteries in a plastic bag and place them on top of their recycling bin for pick-up on collection day. Batteries should never go inside the bin, though, since even regular ones contain poisonous compounds that can leak into the environment and threaten health.

“Local municipalities and waste haulers have worked together to support this simple new system,” said ReGen Monterey’s Shoats. “Now we are asking everyone to make it a habit. We believe most people want to do the right thing. We’re going to show them how easy it is, and help them build the habit: batteries, bag, bin-top.”

The habit part is critical. According to a 2010 study sponsored by the California Product Stewardship Council, 59 percent of Californians knew it was wrong to throw batteries of any kind in the trash, but 56 percent did it anyway.

To help residents discard batteries the right way, the ReGen Monterey and Salinas Valley Recycles are sponsoring drive-through lithium-ion battery collection events being held by local Rotary clubs on Saturday, November 12 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Monterey, Salinas and Soledad.

Monterey – Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont Street, parking lot A

Salinas – Salinas Sports Complex, 1034 North Main Street, main driveway

Soledad – The Circuit Family Fitness, 115 Alder Street, back parking lot

Residents are encouraged to drop off lithium-ion batteries which will be responsibly recycled, helping to build a clean energy future.

There are also year-round drop-off locations around the region, including ReGen Monterey’s facility just north of Marina, Madison Lane Recycling Center in Salinas, in city offices, and at some businesses.

More information about all kinds of local recycling and disposal can be found with the What Goes Where mobile app, or at