A burning concern

Minimising risks and ensuring safety in the evolving waste sector

The number of fires are becoming more frequent in the waste and recycling industry. A number of these increased fire risks are emerging as we move towards more sustainable practices and must be understood and reduced by waste processing facilities.

 Hannu Sartovuo, vice president, Dafo Vehicle, discusses why these risks are changing, the lack of regulation in the industry and how small changes can minimise downtime and loss of income for recycling facilities. 

The growing hazards

Fire risks at recycling facilities and waste disposal facilities are not a new concern as there were over 300 incidents reported annually between 2001 and 2013. Paper, plastic, wood, and cardboard are all combustible items that can catch fire and are present in these environments, so most people are aware of this risk.

Despite actions being taken to protect the safety of the industry, the number of fires is rising, with fire accidents at recycling plants rising by 6% in 2022 compared to 2021. Fires of any magnitude can harm a facility and result in downtime, which lowers the amount of waste that can be processed and jeopardises a plant's profitability. Fires can range in size from a minor incident to a complete burnout.

Unexpectedly, one of the reasons for the increase in fires is the increase in the number of lithium-ion batteries found in recycling and waste environments. Batteries are an important part of the sustainability movement, however, due to their rising use and increased fire danger, improper disposal is leading to an increase in waste management facility fires.

However, poor lithium battery disposal is only one aspect of the issue. Additionally, there are risks associated with the machinery used in the waste and recycling industry, such as mobile crushers and shredders. This machinery uses combustible material for extended periods of time, which can readily collect in the engine compartment and belly pan of a machine. There are plenty of fuel sources at the waste disposal facility, which makes it easy for fires to start there due to the strong heat the engine and exhaust produces for lengthy periods of time with no downtime.

Understanding the impacts

As the recycling complex houses flammable materials, a fire can have catastrophic effects, spread rapidly, and take days or weeks to put out. This is due to the extremely high chance of re-ignition whenever combustible elements within the facility come into contact with heated surfaces.

Materials on fire in a recycling facility not only cause delay and harm to the facility's owner, but also have considerable negative effects on the environment and society. A few of the dangerous substances and gases that can be emitted during the burning of materials are nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides, carbon monoxide and dioxin. This has a detrimental effect on the environment, which can counteract the benefits of a recycling centre, as well as the residents of the neighbourhoods close to such facilities.

As a result, fewer recycling facilities may be able to be developed, as local governments and residents may object to a facility being erected close to their home because of the potential of fire and the resultant discharge of toxic gases. Due to a lack of infrastructure, this could in turn restrict the amount of recycling and waste disposal that a nation can engage in.


Regulatory oversight

Despite the Environment Agency's 21-part fire protection plan for operations that describe the storage and management of combustible waste, the section that defines the plant and equipment contains three vague criteria:

  • Create an inspection and maintenance schedule for both stationary and mobile equipment.
  • Fit fire extinguishers to vehicles.
  • Keep flammable trash away from unused mobile equipment.

These unclear areas in fire safety can increase hazards and harm facilities because of the inadequate regulation and lack of definition for the waste processing industry. The majority of insurers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) rely on these regulations as they might not be aware of the changing risks.

It’s important to consider a wide range of factors while doing a risk assessment in order to properly understand how certain events will affect the recycling facility as a whole. The placement of fire suppression systems where they can put out a fire before it spreads is just as vital as installing fire extinguishers on the vehicles, for instance. It's also important to identify potential threats, such as those in the hydraulics, exhaust, engine and belly pan.

Protecting the future of recycling

As technology develops, risk analyses and fire suppression systems must be updated since legislation frequently lags behind development. Because lithium-ion batteries provide a fire risk both on and off the conveyor belt, risks will change as more people utilise electric and hybrid equipment.

Given the increasing risks and the continuously shifting nature of the industry, every risk must be considered if we’ve to keep processing as much waste globally as we can while reducing the likelihood of downtime, damage and business interruption.

To find out more about understanding the risks in your industry, get in touch.