'Avoid the Spark' campaign launched to prevent fires at waste facilities

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- More than half the fires reported at California waste facilities are thought to be caused by batteries. So a public education campaign called "Avoid the Spark" has been launched.

If you are like many here in the Bay Area, you have a plastic bag filled with batteries either under the kitchen sink or in the garage. It is a place to store batteries until they are recycled. That is fine for most batteries but not lithium batteries. Those are the batteries most often used to power your cellphones, cameras, computers and many toys.

Corte Madera resident Sumi Caga was making a recycling run to the Marin Household Hazardous Waste Facility in San Rafael last week.

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She was dropping off all sorts of e-waste including batteries. "I put them in the bag and I collect them, then when I come to this facility, I drop it off," she said.

She knows recycling batteries is good for the environment but did not know off-loading lithium batteries is part of a good fire safety plan, too.

"I just knew that once I am no longer using them, I do not want them around anymore."

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Lithium batteries have been blamed for fires in hover boards, vape pens and smartphones, and now they are being singled out for concern at recycling centers.

In San Rafael, they separate batteries by their chemistry -- alkaline, nickel cadmium and lithium are among the most common.

"The ones that we are more concerned are the lithium ion," said Kathy Wall, Household Hazardous Waste Program Coordinator at Marin Sanitary Service. "Because they are rechargeable, so it is really difficult to identity when they have run all the energy that they have in them."

That is where the problems begin.

"Even a perfectly fine laptop battery that is no longer useful can be potentially dangerous if not handled correctly at the end of life." says Carl Smith, CEO and president of the not-for-profit, Call2Recycle, the country's largest battery recycling program.

He says if a lithium battery comes into contact with metal in just the right way, sparks can fly.

"They look like fire crackers going off," Smith said.

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So when storing lithium batteries before recycling, keep them out of direct sunlight and away from metal.

At the Marin Household Hazardous Waste Facility, the battery holding barrels are lined with plastic.

"Fortunately here we have not had any fires," says David Catalinotto, environmental management coordinator for the San Rafael Fire Department. "That doesn't just happen by accident."

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Smith says safety won't accidentally happen at your home either.

"You need to make sure the terminals are taped and protected," he says, "so they don't rub against more metal and create a spark and an explosion."

To protect yourself, tape over their positive terminals of lithium batteries with electrical, duct or clear packing tape.

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