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Damaged rechargeable lithium ion batteries, sometimes called defective, damaged or recalled (DDR) batteries, present fire and safety hazards both at home and in the waste stream. Devices powered by lithium ion batteries are extremely common in modern households. High quality batteries and battery powered devices are designed with multiple fail safes, making fires relatively rare. Residents can further reduce risks at home by being able to recognize damaged batteries and by disposing of them quickly and safely.

​Identifying a damaged lithium battery​

The following are all important indicators of a damaged lithium ion battery:

  • Battery or battery-containing device is swollen
    • ​Device cases or surfaces may crack, bulge or come out of alignment (see photo below)
  • ​​Battery and/or charger is very hot or smells bad during charging​
  • ​Battery makes hissing, popping or crackling sounds during charging or device operation
  • ​Battery exhibits sudden/dramatic drop in its ability to hold charge

If any of the above indicators are present, ​​stop using the battery or device right away.  If indicators occur during charging, unplug the charger from the wall immediately and do not attempt to charge the battery or device again. If the battery or device is generating excessive heat, smoke or burning smells, carefully move it, using a metal shovel, grill tongs or similar tool, to a fireproof surface away from flammable material (a driveway, slab patio or fire pit is ideal). Call the fire department for further instruction. Never attempt to "deflate" a swollen battery by puncturing it - the gas contained in swollen batteries is both highly flammable and toxic.

Handling a device with a non-removable damaged battery

Many small consumer electronic devices (tablets, smart phones, etc.) contain rechargeable lithium ion batteries that are not intended to be removed or replaced by the consumer. Follow these steps when the battery in such a device is showing any of the indicators of damage listed above:

  1. Unplug the device, stop using it, and keep it out of the sun and away from all heat sources.
  2. Call the device manufacturer and/or point-of-purchase for warrantee care or recall information.
  3. ​​​If the manufacturer and point-of-purchase do not offer a solution, look for trained/reputable third party repair shops to replace the battery. Request that they use the make and model of battery designated by the original device manufacturer for that particular device.
  4. If the device is not repairable and is at the end of its useful life, bring it for electronics recycling.
Do not place a device with a damaged battery into curbside trash or recycling. Lithium batteries cause fires in waste collection vehicles and facilities. 

The screen on the phone above has separated from the rest of the case due to pressure from a swollen battery. This likely started with a smaller bulge or deformation. (Photo: Canva Pro)

Handling a loose/removable damaged battery

Some devices contain lithium ion batteries or battery packs that are intended to be removed by the consumer. Here are steps to take if a removable battery goes bad:
  1. Unplug the device, power it down, and carefully release the battery. Do not use any prying or cutting tool that could rupture a swollen battery.
  2. Call the device manufacturer and/or point-of-purchase for battery recall and replacement information. Ask them if they have a return program for defective batteries.
  3. Lacking a solution through the manufacturer or point-of-purchase, Kane County residents should call their local Batteries Plus Bulbs location to inquire about damaged battery acceptance and pricing. Unfortunately, most battery drop-off sites are not equipped​ to take damaged batteries.
  4. Residents can also purchase mail-in damaged battery recycling kits from online retailers such as Call2Recycle and Cirba Solutions. While somewhat expensive, these kits are convenient, simple to use, and offer peace of mind.
  5. Storage of damaged batteries at home is generally not recommended, but for shor​t-term storage in preparation for disposal, damaged lithium batteries can be buried in sand or clay kitty litter inside​ a sturdy ​bucket or can, and kept away from sunlight and all heat sources.
Do not place any loose damaged lithium batteries into regular trash or recycling. Lithium batteries cause fires in waste collection vehicles and facilities. 

The battery pack on the bottom of the photo has started to swell and is rounded instead of flat like the one at the top (Photo: Canva Pro)

Reducing lithium battery risks​

Any rechargeable lithium ion battery can go bad simply due to age. However, there are things that people can do to reduce the likelihood of battery problems and minimize risk:

  • ​When buying battery containing devices and replacement batteries, look for reputable brands that have received third-party quality control and safety certifications such as UL certification​
  • Always read and follow device owner's manual instructions about charging, battery installation and storage.
  • Avoid charging lithium batteries, especially the powerful batteries in e-mobility devices (ebikes, scooters, hoverboards, etc.) and lawnmowers, either when no one is home or when everyone is sleeping.
  • Buy replacement chargers and batteries from the original device manufacturer.
  • Remove batteries and devices from chargers when fully charged. Lithium batteries are designed to be charged and discharged over and over. They are not designed to be held at a constant state of full charge by being left on a charger long-term.
  • Keep battery containing devices and extra batteries in temperature-controlled environments. Do not store or leave devices or batteries in vehicles or in direct sunlight at home.
  • If planning to store a battery or battery containing device for a while, it is best for the battery to be at low charge (~30% charge). Store it in a cool, dry place.
  • Keep track of any batteries and battery containing devices that are being stored in the home. Visually inspect for battery damage at least once per year and take items that are not likely to be used again for donation or recycling.

Damaged rechargeable lithium battery FAQs

Why do damaged lithium batteries swell up?
​Normal charging and use of lithium batteries involves the movement of lithium ions through liquid electrolyte. Over time, the electrolyte can degrade, producing gases which cause the battery to swell. Certain conditions can start or accelerate​ gas formation in batteries. These include exposure to excessive heat, defects in manufacturing, physical damage to the battery, and long-term storage of the battery at a state of full charge or complete discharge.

Can I fix a swollen battery by deflating it?
NO! NEVER ATTEMPT THIS! Puncturing a swollen battery can trigger thermal runaway (see below) and start a fire. 

What is thermal runaway?
​Thermal runaway occurs when a lithium battery begins uncontrolled chemical reactions that generate an excessive amount of heat. Once enough heat is generated, the battery cell is likely to spark, ignite, or explode, venting flammable gases. The heat generated by the original runaway cell is likely to trigger runaway in adjacent​ cells until the entire battery or battery pack is effected.  See this short video for more info.

What causes thermal runaway? 
One cause of thermal runaway is an internal short circuit in the battery. This can be the result of poor design/manufacture, but can also occur if a battery is physically damaged. Physical damage can easily become the cause of fires that occur when lithium batteries or battery containing devices are improperly put in curbside trash or recycling. Trash and recycling collection trucks typically have powerful compactors. Materials are handled at transfer stations and sorting facilities by heavy loading equipment. Finished recycling is compressed into bales. Lithium batteries can be damaged at any one of these stages of waste handling, starting thermal runaway leading to fire. This video shows security camera footage of a battery-sparked fire at a recycling facility. Thankfully, quick action by facility employees kept the fire under control. 

Overcharging of a battery, which can be the result of poor battery or charger design​ or use of a charger that is not fully compatible with the battery being charged, can also cause thermal runaway. Repeated instances of over-draining the battery (i.e., using it until it's completely dead and then recharging) can also be a trigger. See this short video for more info on causes of thermal runaway.

More Lithium Ion Battery Disposal​ Resources

U.S. EPA Used Lithium Batteries