It’s busy inside Sydney’s second-largest recycling facility, operated by Re.Group, which processes more than 300 kilograms of material per minute.

Two workers keep an eagle eye on what’s coming through on a conveyor belt. Cans, fine. Cardboard, fine. Plastic bottles, fine.

The workers overseeing the pre-sort process move quickly to pluck out what should not be there – green waste, a wicker chair, a laundry basket, a towel, bags of rubbish and what looks like a tired Christmas ornament are all removed in relatively quick succession.

“It’s annoying when someone puts stuff that should have gone in their rubbish into the recycling, but we can deal with that,” Re.Group chief development officer Garth Lamb said.

“What we can’t deal with is hazardous items that are creating a risk — that are going to burst into flames, that are going to hurt one of our workers, that are going to hurt our equipment.”

Mr Lamb is referring to items containing lithium-ion batteries, which are turning up at facilities like his in increasing numbers.

A conveyor belt carrying plastics in a factory.

Recycling plant workers face risks from damaged lithium-ion batteries.(ABC News: Emily Baker)

The batteries are common in household devices, powering electronics including our smartphones, AirPods, vapes, cordless power tools and vacuums, and e-mobility devices.

The ACCC estimates that Australian households will have an average 33 items with lithium-ion batteries by 2026.

Trucks and facilities on fire

They do not belong in household bins, and according to the Australian Council of Recycling, are responsible for more than three fires a day at waste and recycling facilities.

Mr Lamb has seen exactly how dangerous lithium-ion batteries can be after Re.Group’s ACT facility – the only facility servicing the territory and some nearby NSW towns — burnt down on Boxing Day in 2022.

That region’s recycling is still being processed in New South Wales and Victoria as a result.

“It’s such a disruption to the market, and we can’t turn off the front end — it’s not like we can ring up the community and say ‘hey, just don’t bring your bins this week,'” Mr Lamb said.

“Our facilities, our trucks are catching on fire, not to mention the risk to our people. It’s a massive issue for our sector.”

Workers keep an eye on what’s coming through the facility, but small items are hard to spot. Mr Lamb quickly picks out three disposable vapes from a pile of glass – the same objects he believes may be responsible for the Canberra fire.

A man wearing an orange hi-vis top holding three vapes in his hands.

Re.Group chief development officer Garth Lamb holds vapes he pulled from the recycling waste.(ABC News: Emily Baker)

“You look at a pile of 60 tonnes of material on the floor, you know that there’s a handful of batteries in there somewhere, you know that there’s going to be dozens of vapes in that pile somewhere,” he said.

“What you don’t know is whether they’re going to get through the facility without being cracked, (and) if they if they do get cracked then they can go up in flames. If it happens, where there’s lots of other material, then we can have a big, big problem with fire.”

Environment minister ‘concerned’

In a statement, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said she was “concerned” about the number of fires at recycling and landfill facilities associated with batteries.

“I’ve been clear that I expect those who supply these products, and the potentially hazardous batteries they contain, to take responsibility for the disposal of them,” Ms Plibersek said.

“However, given industry has not stepped up, I will regulate a stewardship scheme for small electrical products and electronic equipment.”

Consultation on the proposed scheme closed in July last year.

Charred remains of faulty lithium-ion battery that caused a unit fire in bondi

The charred remains of a faulty lithium-ion e-bike battery.(Supplied: NSW Fire and Rescue)

In the meantime, Mr Lamb encouraged people to use the Recycle Mate app to find nearby battery recycling points, but encouraged lawmakers to look at the success of the container deposit scheme, to encourage proper battery disposal.

“We know when we put just a 10-cent refund on bottles and cans, we saw a massive increase in the number of those that were returned through proper collection points … Why can’t we add other materials into that sort of scheme?”

Lithium-ion batteries are not just causing issues in the waste and recycling sector.

NSW Fire and Rescue last month announced a tragic milestone after two women were believed to be the state’s first lithium-ion battery fire-related deaths.

NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Jeremy Fewtrell said the impacted battery was believed to be part of a trail bike.

“That battery caught alight because it was what we would say is mechanically compromised, and what that means is the battery was penetrated in such a way that it then became open to the atmosphere,” Mr Fewtrell said.

“The physical and chemical properties of a lithium-ion battery are such that once that occurs, there will be a large exothermic reaction.”

More than 1,000 lithium-ion battery fires

7.30 asked each state and territory fire service how many lithium-ion battery fires they’ve responded to since January 2023. The total was more than 1,000 across the jurisdictions.

“We’re in a time of energy transition and our predecessors had to deal with piped natural gas coming into properties, they had to deal with the introduction of petrol-powered engines and fuel storage and electricity being introduced in the properties,” Mr Fewtrell said.

“So for us, we’re at a point of time where this is the challenge we’ve got to deal with, and it’s certainly a challenge that is testing us.”

But Mr Fewtrell stressed batteries were “safe and effective” when used properly – meaning bought from reputable suppliers, charged appropriately and disposed of when damaged.

“The reason that they’re so popular is because they’re so efficient at storing energy, and it means that in a relatively small space, and relatively lightweight, you can have a fair bit of energy stored to help operate whatever device it is,” he said.

“In consequence, though, if there’s anything that goes wrong with the battery … it also means you’re going to get a bigger impact in terms of fire or explosion.”

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