Improper Disposal Of Cellphone Suspected In Taylor Garbage Fire

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Updated: 02/19/20 – 12:12 P.M.

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Apalachin Fire Chief Mike George said the leading theory of what caused a devastating fire at Taylor Garbage’s recycling facility in Tioga County: a stray cellphone battery.*

Lithium-ion batteries are used in laptops, electric vehicles and for grid storage. They’re relatively safe when powering your cellphone, but tossing them into a garbage can lead to dire consequences.

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Even though it is illegal to do so in New York, Taylor Garbage General Manager Dave McPeek said devices with lithium-ion batteries are often thrown away with other waste.

“I would say the largest offender would be cellphones,” McPeek said. “They are small, easy to dispose, easy to throw away.”

When lithium-ion batteries are compacted with other materials, their protective lining breaks down. Without it, they can overheat and cause a fire.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, between 2009 and 2017 the batteries were the “root cause” of at least 195 fires. According to the Department of Energy, only 5% of lithium ion-batteries are collected and recycled.

M. Stanley Whittingham, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Director of the Institute for Materials Research, pictured here in one of his Science II laboratories, Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

Dr. Stan Whittingham of Binghamton University won the Nobel Prize last year for developing the lithium-ion battery. While safe, he says they are a lot like other energy sources.

“It’s no different than having gasoline in your car, or your gas stove in your kitchen,” Whittingham said. “You have to be careful with any source of energy.”

Twenty-five states currently have electronics recycling laws. In New York, stores and manufacturers that sell battery-powered electronics must take them back for proper recycling.

*This story has been updated to improve accuracy.