Lithium-ion batteries are experiencing a surge in use and demand, with utilization of the energy-dense batteries spanning everything from consumer electronics to electronic vehicles (EVs). Amid lithium-ion batteries’ increased popularity, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidance earlier this summer regarding the application of existing hazardous waste regulations in the disposal of lithium-ion batteries. In issuing this guidance memo, EPA indicated that it hopes to reduce uncertainty about the regulatory status of lithium-ion battery recycling and to encourage safe recycling that enhances resource conservation and reduces energy use.
EPA’s determination comes as both state and federal policymakers are attempting to create more battery recycling programs in response to the increasing demand for EVs and other battery-based products. The characterization of spent batteries can have a significant impact on entities disposing of Li-Ion batteries, as well as entities involved in battery end-of-life storage and recycling.
The typical structure of a lithium-ion battery cell includes an anode layer, a cathode layer and a separator, all of which are in contact with an electrolyte, which is most often a liquid. These components are stacked or rolled together and placed in an outer steel or aluminum/polymer packaging — either a steel can or an aluminum/polymer pouch material is common.
Common materials used in these batteries are lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite, iron, copper and aluminum foils, and an electrolyte that’s frequently classified as ignitable.
In its guidance, EPA says that lithium-ion batteries generally qualify as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This is due to the battery’s ignitability (D001) and reactivity (D003) characteristics. EPA’s guidance doesn’t change any rules for how batteries are regulated. However, it does clarify that when classified as hazardous waste, lithium-ion batteries can be managed as universal waste under 40 C.F.R. Part 273, which imposes less stringent requirements than the standard set of hazardous waste requirements.
Universal Waste Designation
RCRA’s universal waste regulations apply to five categories of common hazardous waste: batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, lamps and aerosol cans. Universal waste is not fully regulated hazardous waste because it is exempt from most hazardous waste requirements. This makes handling universal waste, as opposed to other hazardous waste, less onerous for generators.
Once a generator concludes that the lithium-ion battery is a universal waste, the generator must appropriately manage it as universal waste. Title 40 C.F.R. Part 273 outlines several requirements for the handling of universal waste, including labeling, employee training and accumulation time limits before it can be shipped for recycling or disposal. The requirements are tailored to each specific type of universal waste and differ for small quantity handlers and large quantity handlers. Large quantity handlers — those that accumulate over 5,000 kilograms of universal waste at any one time — are subject to more stringent requirements.
Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling
Reused lithium-ion batteries are also exempt from the definition of hazardous waste under RCRA’s use/reuse exemption if certain criteria are met. Lithium-ion battery recyclers intending to qualify for this exception must satisfy the legitimate use/reuse requirements established in the RCRA regulations. Once a lithium-ion battery is refined and suitable for reuse, it is no longer a waste.
The EPA guidance clarifies that battery recycling facilities generally do not need to obtain RCRA permits to conduct recycling operations. Although tasks to prepare a battery for recycling — such as removing batteries from devices, disassembling them into cells or discharging them — do not require an RCRA permit, it is cautioned that recyclers may not store batteries prior to recycling them without obtaining an RCRA permit. The EPA does not specify a permissible holding time, which would be deemed storage prior to recycling commencing, and instead leaves the determination to the regions or states.
Anticipated Future Actions
As demand for lithium-ion batteries continues to grow, state and federal regulators will continue to focus on end-of-life battery reuse and recycling programs. Most states have the authority to implement their own RCRA programs and can enact more stringent requirements. Waste generators, recyclers and others who manage lithium-ion batteries should carefully evaluate potential state requirements in the disposal of batteries. Burns & McDonnell continues to closely monitor regulatory developments in this area. EPA is required to develop battery recycling best practices and battery labeling guidelines by Sept. 30, 2026. This indicates that additional related guidance and/or requirements may be forthcoming.
Hazardous waste regulations and compliance can be complicated to navigate. Our environmental compliance specialists can provide guidance and answer questions about hazardous waste and universal waste regulations.