The managing director of a major mobility dealer has voiced “deep concern” over the increasing prevalence of “extremely hazardous” lithium-ion batteries in the sector.
Alastair Gibbs, MD of TPG DisableAids, warned that while these batteries are “light and compact”, there is currently “no affordable or safe solution” to disposing of and recycling them when they come to the end of their lives.
Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly being used to power mobility scooters and electric wheelchairs, as well as drills and impact drivers to install lifts.
However, there is currently only one plant in Europe that recycles these industrial batteries. Located in Belgium, the plant can handle up to 7,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries per year.
Gibbs said he is concerned that without a means to dispose of or recycle spent lithium-ion batteries in the UK, consumers and businesses may throw them in the dustbin or local waste site, which is both illegal and dangerous.
According to Zero Waste Scotland, the number of lithium-ion battery related fires at landfill sites is increasing annually due to the failure to recycle these batteries correctly, which is costing the UK £158 million annually.
“Lithium-ion can explode, there’s no question about it,” Gibbs said. “The waste industry classifies this as extremely hazardous waste, so it’s not even just hazardous, it’s extremely hazardous.”
He added: “If we were to transport it, for example, it has to be in a fire-retardant container and completely encased in vermiculite, which is a fireproof material that goes all around the battery. So there are lots of regulations.”
The MD also warned of the high costs associated with disposing of lithium-ion batteries – costs that mobility dealers may be forced to pass on to the consumer.
“I’ve contacted a whole number of factory suppliers, end-of-life type companies and recycling companies and it is a major problem that they really don’t have an affordable answer to at the moment,” he said.
“One recycling company said they’d charge me £100 to dispose of one scooter battery. Who’s going to pay for that? As much as I love my customers, I don’t see that as my responsibility, so clearly I’m going to end up charging that to a customer.”
Gibbs believes the solution may lie in demonstrating to recycling companies the commercial benefits of sustainably managing lithium-ion batteries.
“There are some really expensive components within a lithium-ion battery,” he said.
“Cobalt, which is currently mined in only one country in the whole world, has a scrap value of £34,000 pounds a tonne. It’s massive, but you’ve got to find a way to recover it, so therein lies the problem. Is somebody going to invest in the technology to be able to do that? I’m not a metallurgist or a chemist, but somebody somewhere is going to have to commit to get this right.”
Gibbs added that the UK government may not be aware of this problem.
“They say the move to electric vehicles is great, but for the government to not even recognise that there is no recycling at all in the UK for any end-of-life vehicle batteries…that’s going to be a problem, clearly,” he said.
“I think there’s a there’s a grave danger that those that end up with one or two batteries won’t know what to do with them or will realise that to do it properly, morally, ethically and legally is very expensive right now.”