Fires at recycling facilities make headlines. They are visually appealing for local news stations and create a sense of danger for the local community. The news often involves discussion of fires polluting the air with harmful chemicals, reducing the air quality, and raising the health concerns of people in the surrounding area. In addition to the public relations issues, local fire departments may clamp down on restrictions for other recycling facilities in the community. The best way to handle this issue is to have a fire prevention strategy in place before anything happens.
Fires happen. They’re going to happen. Chemistry and physics will not be denied. Where combustible materials exist in the presence of oxygen and enough heat, they are going to ignite. As the fire burns, it generates more heat, which ignites more of the surrounding fuel. As the intensity grows, rising heat currents suck in ever-increasing amounts of air, making the fire burn even hotter.
The only way to extinguish a fire is to interrupt the chain reaction. That means removing heat, fuel, or oxygen. After a certain tipping point in large fires, only one of those options is feasible: The fire puts itself out by consuming all of the fuel. That can take days or weeks. The difference between a minor fire and a conflagration is largely in your hands. If you understand fire as a high risk in recycling operations, then you can follow simple principles that will keep little fires from becoming big.
The causes of fire incidents include traditional hazards like propane tanks, aerosol cans, fertilizers, and household hazards, as well as new-technology hazards such as lithium-ion batteries. An ever-growing number of lithium-ion batteries are passing through recycling streams. Many recyclers are experiencing hotter and/or drier environments. Newer recycling restrictions imposed by China and other countries mean an increased inventory of mixed materials is staying in the U.S.
To get a deeper ground-level look at the issue, ISRI in 2021 commissioned a study of fire safety issues at U.S. recycling facilities, including ISRI members and nonmembers. All received follow-up reports and recommendations. Of 49 facilities surveyed:
- 45% reported having a “large” fire (requiring the fire department and/or causing property damage) in the past 12 months.
- 40 “large” fires were reported during the period.
- 162 total fires were reported.
- An average of 3.3 fires were reported per site.
Although the survey size is too small to be considered statistically significant, it is valuable as a representation of common fire hazards recyclers face. ISRI members reported fires starting in a process caused by hot materials or flammable liquids; hot-work area fires; fires in incoming material; fires started by a battery; and truck loading and unloading fires as their top five kinds of incidents with a known cause.
Many participants indicated Fire Prevention Plans and Emergency Action Plans as issues that need improvement throughout the industry. They also asserted that more training is needed in fire safety and prevention. They expressed concern about an industrywide lack of knowledge on battery risks.
- Design your operations to limit the scope of a fire. A fire in the shredder pile is ugly, scary, and photogenic—and potentially expensive. That’s a good argument to keep all piles of material away from buildings. When your material-handling equipment isn’t operating, keep it away from the piles, too.
- Establish no-smoking areas, and train your workforce on materials handling involving hot or volatile liquids. Require a permit before starting any hot work.
- Maintain equipment and facilities. Moving parts create friction, and friction causes fires. Loose electrical connections create enough heat to start a fire. Fuels and oxidizers react spontaneously and explosively.
- Maintain exits and fire extinguishers. Call the fire department at the first sign of any fire; you can always turn them around if you don’t need them.
- The more first responders know about your operations, the faster they can help in emergencies. Invite them to your yard for a tour. Show them the stuff they shouldn’t go near, where they shouldn’t throw water, and the source of your water supply.