The number of fires is 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. Small changes can minimize downtime and loss of income for recycling facilities.
By Hannu Sartovuo
Fire risks at recycling facilities and waste disposal facilities are not a new concern. Not only were there were more than 300 incidents reported annually between 2001 and 2013, but 2022 was also the worst year on record for waste and recycling fires in the U.S. and Canada. 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 percent 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 jeopardizes 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.
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 center, as well as the residents of the neighborhoods 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.
There are several types of machinery that are used in every waste and recycling facility, such as shredders and mobile crushers, all of which present their own unique risks. Within these vehicles, engines, hydraulics, fuel and electrical installations pose the most significant fire risks, as these areas are flammable, create a lot of friction, and reach high temperatures. Should a spark catch fire, this can be extremely dangerous, not just because of the vehicle itself, but also all the potential fuel present in the facility.
Despite an increase in fires in the industry, neither EPA or OSHA have a set of regulations to protect sites and individuals. This is common around the globe, as many countries lack clear regulations and criteria to prevent fires and ensure fires can be suppressed successfully to minimize downtime of operations.
This lack of regulation in fire safety can increase hazards and harm facilities because of inadequate standards and lack of definition for the waste processing industry. Most insurers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) rely on these regulations, which means sites can lag behind as risks increase.
It is important to consider a wide range of factors while doing a risk assessment to properly understand how certain events will affect the recycling facility. The placement of fire suppression systems is just as vital as installing fire extinguishers on the vehicles, for instance. It is also important to identify potential threats, such as those in the hydraulics, exhaust, engine, and belly pan. To fully understand the risks in a risk assessment, you can follow five steps:
1. Identifying hazards in your workplace—This is especially important as technology in your site and waste changes, hazards are unlikely to stay the same, so this step is arguably the most important to fully understand your environment.
2. Identify who is at risk—Once you understand your risks, it is key to understand who this might affect and how this might affect different demographics, whether that is direct staff or those who live nearby.
3. Take steps to reduce or remove risks—Not all risks can be removed completely, which is why prevention is not always the best policy. Reduction of risk through activities, such as suppression is also a key element of making an area safer.
4. Keep records—Records are key in your assessment so that you can reflect on risks and understand how they have changed over time.
5. Reviewing your risk assessment—As mentioned, it is not enough to assess your risks once, it should be a continued process that evolves with your operations.
Protecting the Future of Recycling
As technology develops, risk analyses and fire suppression systems must be updated since legislation frequently lags development. Because lithium-ion batteries provide a fire risk both on and off the conveyor belt, risks will change as more people use electric and hybrid equipment.
Due to the flammable nature of lithium-ion batteries, they are considered extremely hazardous in waste, as only 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, they pose extreme fire risks if not handled carefully.
This is also the case for electric vehicles and machinery, which are growing in popularity in industries worldwide. In a lithium-ion cell, the cathode and anode electrodes are physically separated by a separator. Defects in a cell will compromise the separator’s integrity, which causes an internal short circuit condition. This will then develop into thermal runaway. These defects can occur from overheating, overcharging, or physical damage, which will then lead to thermal runaway. This is an extremely dangerous state for a vehicle, machinery, or battery in waste to be in, as when in thermal runaway a battery can create its own source of oxygen, extinguishing a fire can take hours, or even days.
Under an EU-funded program, from Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Dafo Vehicle, research found and suggested that to minimize the effects of thermal runaway, spot cooling during the venting stage of thermal runaway—the early stage where a battery will release carbon monoxide—will lower the temperature and prevent a fire.
Given the increasing risks and the continuously shifting nature of the industry, every risk must be considered if we are to keep processing as much waste globally as we can while reducing the likelihood of downtime, damage, and business interruption. | WA
Hannu Sartovuo is Vice President of Dafo Vehicle. Hannu is Vice President of Dafo Vehicle, he has worked at Dafo Vehicle since its conception, driving safety of vehicles in high-risk environments worldwide as industries evolve. Hannu can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.dafo-vehicle.com.