Solid-waste company ecomaine is reminding consumers about the danger of mixing lithium-ion batteries with trash and recycling, issuing the warning after identifying the battery in a discarded laptop as the likely cause of a dangerous fire at its Portland plant this month.

The Dec. 1 blaze likely started when a rechargeable laptop battery combusted after it was damaged, igniting piles of recycling material, ecomaine CEO Kevin Roche said. The fire took 40 minutes to extinguish – making it one of the company’s most persistent fires – and it could have been much worse, he said.

“This is the most serious fire we’ve had, if we had not had personnel so close, it could have been catastrophic for us,” Roche said.

It was the second time in as many weeks that a lithium-ion battery had sparked a fire at the company’s plant.

“Our message is that these should not be placed in the trash in the first place,” Roche said. Instead, consumers should bring used lithium-ion batteries to specialized recycling centers or back to the stores where they purchased them, Roche said.

“With these batteries, a lot of people might not know what to do with them,” he said. “They might think they are doing the right thing, but they have energy stored in them and they have to be treated differently.”

While many disposable lithium-ion batteries are safe, the larger, rechargeable batteries in computers, mobile phones and power tools contain chemicals that can ignite if damaged, said ecomaine safety specialist Mark Maritato.

“When the battery is damaged it short-circuits, there is a lot of heat, enough heat and energy to ignite flammable liquid,” Maritato said. The addition of more used electronics into the waste stream is increasing the chance of damaged batteries and more fires, he said.

“It is a recognized problem in the industry and a growing one, Maritato said.

Even though some lithium-ion batteries have a recycling symbol, they should never be disposed of with other recycling, Roche said. Instead, ecomaine suggests donating used electronics that still work to charities like Goodwill or consulting www.call2recycle.org to find the nearest battery recycling point.

One of the largest solid-waste companies in the state, ecomaine is a municipally owned corporation that serves 72 communities and operates a recycling facility and waste-to-energy plant in Portland.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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