Iowa City recycling program reduces landfill battery fires

In the last few years Iowa City has seen an increase in landfill battery fires, but the City of Iowa City’s expanded recycling program has already caused a decrease.


Braden Ernst

Photo Illustration by Braden Ernst

Meg Doster, News Reporter

The City of Iowa City recorded fewer fires at the Landfill and Recycling Center after expanding its battery recycling program last summer.

Jennifer Jordan, Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center resource management superintendent, said the last fire at the landfill was in November 2021.

“We seem to be trending down, which is great news,” she said.

Jordan said from 2017-2022, there have been an estimated 23 battery fires at the waste center, four of which required the help of the fire department to put out. She said 12 of the fires were documented in 2021 alone.

The batteries that started some of the fires from recent years included a Bluetooth speaker battery, a cell phone battery, and a battery from medical equipment, Jordan said.

In July 2021, Iowa City’s Department of Resource Management expanded its recycling program to include all types of batteries, including alkaline batteries and added more drop-off locations.

Johnson County explicitly accepts alkaline batteries, but some counties don’t make the distinction. Some counties such as Linn County and Iowa County state that they do not accept alkaline batteries.

Batteries fires start when the chemicals within the vessel overheat and ignite, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information.

The report says that lithium batteries are one of the most common types of batteries because of their long shelf lives and capability of holding a lot of power. They are often found in electronics, cars, and appliances.

Lithium batteries can ignite when crushed by trash compactors in landfills, making it very dangerous to throw them away rather than recycle them. Fires of any kind can cause damage, injury, or even death, and reducing the chance of a fire spontaneously igniting keeps the Iowa City population safer.

“That’s been one of the big issues with landfills, people not properly disposing of their batteries correctly,” said Ryan Stouder, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources senior environmental specialist.

Stouder said that, unlike normal fires, battery fires can also reduce air quality.

Alkaline batteries, most found in AA-type batteries, are the newest batteries accepted in the recycling program. Alkaline batteries produce irritating fumes when ignited.

“Any type of emissions into the atmosphere can certainly affect our well-being or quality of life,” Stouder said. “A lot of those emissions, they get kicked up into our atmosphere.”

Stouder said fires of any kind can be harmful to the air quality, but fires caused by batteries add chemicals into the atmosphere that are especially harmful to breathe in.

“The types of chemicals that are given to her atmosphere can certainly react to our lungs and cause problems,” Stouder said. “If you can control those sources, before it gets to your lungs, the better off we all are.”