The risk of a catastrophic fire from an electric vehicle battery landing in the tip is mounting as the first wave of EV batteries reaches its end of life, and the waste industry says Australia needs a plan as more electric cars hits the road.

The waste sector has urged an immediate intervention to stop small consumer batteries ending up in landfill, which is causing thousands of fires each year inside recycling facilities, waste trucks and landfill.

And one of the few EV battery recyclers in the country says the “inherently dangerous” EV and home batteries must be part of a nationwide ban of batteries to landfill.

Simon Linge, chief executive of Lithium Australia (the parent company of battery recycler Envirostream), said most of the manufacturers who had direct relationships with recyclers acted maturely, but some batteries were falling through the cracks.

“There some who are [more] reluctant to do it, are much more focused on price and how can they can get away from having that obligation,” Mr Linge said.

He added manufacturers also did not always have control of batteries at their end-of-life, and some were finding their way into landfill through car crashes or improper disposal.

Warning EV battery fires too big to extinguish

While the sector warns large batteries from EVs or home solar storage have already found their way to landfill, a projected increase of EV and home battery sales from 100,000 tonnes next year to 800,000 tonnes in a decade’s time could bring a surge in the risk of “catastrophic” fire.

“With that … growth, you’re going to have isolated incidents become more at scale,” Mr Linge said.

“The intensity of a fire from an energy storage unit or EV battery is exponentially more significant than a small consumer battery.”

Fires caused by batteries are already difficult to extinguish, but Mr Linge said with EV and home batteries — which are effectively thousands of lithium-ion cells linked together — firefighters generally cannot extinguish them but only try to contain them until they burn out.

Industry figures say a fire at Sydney Airport last year that set five cars alight was a wake-up call to the risk of EV batteries for the waste sector.

Association for the Battery Recycling Industry CEO Katharine Hole said EV batteries were generally not ending up in landfill at this time because most car makers had direct relationships with recyclers.

But as the first generation of EV batteries reaches its end-of-life and more are disposed of outside of warranty, Ms Hole said the government would be needed to help coordinate a response.

“You do need a plan, because it’s going to take several parts of the chain to make sure it’s all working: the car companies, the service centres, the scrap yards, the recyclers are all handling the battery at different points and it’s not a smooth process at the moment,” Ms Hole said.

“Government definitely needs to take a look … they’re just too big and dangerous to dump in a paddock.

“These products are so risky. We see the fires with the small consumer batteries, imagine the fire size and the danger with a larger battery.”

Ms Hole agreed “without a doubt” there were already EV batteries ending up in landfill, despite industry’s efforts.

Government eyes battery fire problem, but no scheme for EV and home batteries

Waste Management and Resource Recovery’s Gayle Sloan said at this stage there was still no comprehensive scheme to deal with EV battery waste.

“The issue is that it’s coming at us … it is an impending question that we need to get ahead of,” Ms Sloan said.

“I think we had a bit of a wake-up call when we saw … the spontaneous EV fire down at the airport in the car park, that was sitting there by itself and there was a fire.

“It is a huge risk, we have actually seen deaths in the home as a result of battery fires this year.”

But Ms Sloan said banning batteries from landfill would not work unless an alternative was available, including for bigger EV and home storage batteries like EVs.

Instead she and other recyclers have called on Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to regulate battery disposal, and mandate schemes to ensure they are recycled.

Federal and state environment ministers met last week, where they considered a presentation from the Queensland government on the issue, and agreed to further a plan for battery disposal.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, said it was disappointing last week’s meeting did not result in more immediate support.

“I think it’s a bit of a crisis,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

“The industry has been asking for some kind of immediate assistance from government to help them deal with this issue, as well as some long-term solution like a product stewardship scheme, where we not only have the producers and retailers of these batteries take responsibility for them, but we also have a collection system that is safe.”

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