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Editor’s Note: In today’s Thursday Feature, we look at forklift batteries and the safest ways to recycle them once they have reached the end of their useful life.
The batteries used in electric forklifts are rechargeable, but that doesn’t mean they are going to last forever.
At some point, their useful life will come to an end. Technically, a forklift battery is no longer viable when it is unable to hold a minimum of 80% of its rated capacity.
In real life, however, you can tell when your forklift operators are constantly switching out batteries that can’t hold a charge or jockeying for forklifts with the longest-lasting batteries and avoiding those vehicles with older batteries.
Recycling Forklift Batteries
So what should you do when a forklift battery can no longer hold a charge?
What you shouldn’t do is throw it out. All batteries contain toxins, usually lead, which can be extremely harmful to the environment. If your battery ends up in a landfill, the lead and other toxic materials can leach out and contaminate the water supply.
You also should never burn your old battery in the incinerator. Batteries will explode if burned, distributing their harmful toxins into the atmosphere.
Forklift batteries — and all batteries, for that matter — should be recycled.
About 97% of all lead-acid batteries are recycled in the US, according to the website Battery University. In fact, more than half of the lead used in industry comes from recycled batteries.
When purchasing a replacement battery, ask about ways you can recycle your old forklift battery. Or contact the company you bought the forklift or the forklift battery from in the first place.
What Happens during Battery Recycling?
Nearly 100% of the lead-acid batteries used on forklifts can be recycled. Usually, the battery is separated into its component parts and most of these pieces will go into a melting vat, where the lead and other heavy metals will sink to the bottom and the melted plastic will rise to the top.
Acid from the batteries can be safely neutralized and turned into water, or converted into sodium sulfate, a powder that’s widely used to make laundry detergent, glass, and fabrics.
The plastic pieces will be reused as plastic pellets which can be used to make new battery cases. Lead is melted together in smelting furnaces the poured into ingot molds. Battery makers will then use these lead molds in the production of new batteries.
Lithium Ion Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries contain metallic lithium, which will react violently if it comes into contact with any type of moisture. They often are the cause of landfill fires, which can be difficult to extinguish and can burn underground for years.
Before recycling a lithium ion battery, the unit must undergo a full discharge to consume the lithium content.
Because heavy metals can be extremely toxic, there are a lot of federal, state and even municipal rules regulating the recycling of forklift batteries. Companies that try to take shortcuts by dumping batteries in the garbage or burning them can get into real trouble.
Know the Rules
Whenever batteries are being moved, US Department of Transportation regulations are in effect, including rules regarding the handling, packing, transferring and documenting. The company that recycles your forklift battery should be familiar with all the requirements of handling, transporting and disposing of your used forklift batteries, but it’s always a good idea to ask anyway.
Here are some recommendations for preparing your used forklift batteries for transport to the recycling center:
- Tightly seal battery caps so that now liquid can escape during transport. Skin contact with the battery’s electrolyte could cause a chemical burn.
- Wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever handling batteries or other potentially hazardous materials.
- Insulate the battery terminals with wood or cardboard. If metal bands — such as those used for packaging — come into contact with the battery terminals, it could spark, which is a fire hazard.
- Batteries are heavy, so make sure they are properly blocked and braced when placed in a truck or on a flatbed for transport. If necessary, nail wooden cleats around the battery to prevent it from sliding.
- Use high-quality, undamaged pallets for loading batteries
Recycling forklift batteries is a complicated process. But when done responsibly and consistently, it actually can be good for the environment and good for companies as well.