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Lithium Batteries in the Afterlife

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Science  24 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6135, pp. 902
DOI: 10.1126/science.340.6135.902-a
CREDIT: CAGAN/ISTOCKPHOTO

We are accustomed to collecting single-use batteries for recycling, but what about rechargeable lithium batteries in consumer electronic products? Many of these products are disposed of in the normal rubbish with the batteries still inside. The harmful nature of this e-waste has been recognized, but previous studies have focused on the impacts of the electronic products—such as cellphones—themselves, rather than the batteries contained in them. Kang et al. have performed leaching tests and applied life-cycle impact and hazard assessment models to determine the environmental impacts and human toxicity potentials of lithium-ion batteries used in cell phones. They analyzed 16 batteries from cell phones sent for recycling, representing the three types of lithium battery that are most abundant in e-waste: lithium-ion and lithium-polymer from traditional phones and small, high–energy-density lithium batteries from smartphones. The authors show that these batteries contain several metals, including lead and cobalt, that can leach out under simulated landfill conditions at concentrations exceeding U.S. federal and state regulations. They call for regulatory efforts to increase recycling and reuse of rechargeable batteries and to reduce the levels of toxic metals in these batteries and in consumer electronics as a whole.

Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 10.1021/es400614y (2013).

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