Understanding the consequences and developing solutions both on the front and back end will, ultimately, result in less fire incidents in our waste and recycling facilities even with the growing hazards we face.
By Ryan Fogelman
As we close out the old and enter a new decade, I have developed some clarity around the problem that we are facing—the fires that we have been witnessing in scrap metal, recycling and waste facilities since 2010. In the last decade we were caught off guard but heading into the 2020s we are in a different position. We better understand the risks that we face and are actively pursuing solutions to the problem. When Fire Rover was launched in 2015 centering around combating facility fires, none of us understood or comprehended the hazards and true scope of the problem we were facing. As we started to learn more about the traditional hazards in waste and recycling operations caused from propane tanks, chemicals, forklifts and more, none of us were prepared for dangers the wave of lithium-ion batteries brought to clients’ operations. As I sought to define and understand the depth of the problem, we have all been witnesses, both directly and indirectly, to the true extent of the consumer electronics and stationary storage revolution.
Fast forward to 2020 and I feel that as an industry we are much better prepared. Most organizations and associations have started to address the problem through corporate and individual fire protection plans, employee training, educating the public to be better stewards, and investing in fire detection and elimination technologies. Along with organization initiatives, 2019 has brought focus from the associations, each of which have some level of response to the fire issues. For example, the Environmental Education & Research Foundation’s (EREF) “Assessment of Fires at MRF’s & Scrap Yards” survey seeks to identify “The Causes & Impacts of Recycling Facility Fires” in the U.S. and Canada. The research project is in partnership with the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). (See: www.surveymonkey.com/r/FireStudy19) Folks like Michael Csapo, Brent Shows, Debra Canter, Anne Germain, Kirk Sander, David Biderman, Pete Keller, Jerry Sjogren, Nathan Brainard, Hilary Gans, Michael Timpane, Nate Kelman, Susan Eppes, Bryan Stanley, Jim Emerson, John Schumacher, Carl Smith and others have been raising the flag and helped us educate the industry and the public of the problems we are facing.
Scope of the Problem
Anyone that does research and compiles data knows that sometimes it takes a “moment of clarity” where you start to see the data trending in a unique way. This moment hit me earlier in the year in the midst of research whilst having a hard time classifying the “cause” of each fire incident I report. I began to see waste facilities that reported a fire that clearly started in their paper pile, but since it was a waste facility it was classified into waste, not paper. My solution? Consolidate waste, paper and plastic into one bucket and metal, C&D and electronic scrap into another. I kept organics, chemicals and rubber in their own distinct buckets. Figure 1, shows the percentage of total fire incidents, which provides a clear picture of the scope of the problem in five buckets versus nine.
The purpose I see for this is very simple: the fire incidents we see due to these types of materials are different. In MRFs that process waste, paper and plastics, the materials are typically comingled and especially with the trend toward single-stream recycling. We see more and more hazards showing up either accidently or due to miseducation of the public. Think about someone placing an old iPhone in the blue office receptacle for recycling paper or someone placing a greeting card in the trash or in a paper recycling bin not realizing there is a battery. The fire incidents that we see are similar and can be consolidated for purpose of understanding the scope of the problem and solving it.
With metal, C&D and electronic recycling, there is a hazard that should be known to the operator. For example, when a car gets into a car accident, there are a number of potential hidden dangers like vape pens, earbuds, or phones hidden in the seat cushions or under the seat. The same with C&D and electronics—if the material comes from a building that burned or has pieces of equipment, there are hidden dangers that are part of processing the material. They are not any less difficult to deal with, but there are different hazards and solutions to each. I have received pretty good feedback about these assumptions, but I am also open to understanding the other side, which is why I still provide the data both in the consolidated five buckets and their individual nine buckets in the Annual Report.
Currently, the biggest issue I see facing the industry is still the scope of the lithium ion battery—a growing problem since there are a number of batteries being forecasted for personal storage over the next decade. According to an article penned by Matt Bohlsen that was published in Seeking Alpha (August 2019), “No matter which way you look at it, lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery demand is set to surge about tenfold between 2018 and 2030” (see Figure 2).
Another way to get a feel is the Benchmark Minerals megafactory data, which as of a July 5, 2019 Tweet: “Assessment published at 1,956.6GWh [gigawatt hours] capacity by 2028, increase of 5.25 percent, now tracking 91 plants.” The 91 number was three back in Q1 2015, showing how much megafactory demand has advanced in just four years. (Source: BloombergNEF)
Finding a Solution
The fact is that no matter how hopeful we are that there is some new water-based non-flammable portable energy storage solution is coming down the pipeline, this is not reality. The reality is that lithium ion batteries are king based on their price, manufacturing infrastructure and amount of power they can provide in a relatively small footprint. Even if a new solution is developed, the time it will take for the world to commercialize would be years.
I have spent the past five years engulfed in an industry that we cannot do without (waste) or should not do without (recycling). We are in the heart of an epidemic that is causing havoc in our operations. From my perspective, we have made it through the hardest part, which was getting our arms around the initial and continued scope of the problem. The problem is not going away, but the industry has been stepping up by working together, educating, executing and investing in strategies and solutions that are mitigating both the traditional fire risks as well as the onslaught of fire risk we are experiencing through lithium-ion batteries.
My passionate belief is that “Safety should not know competition” and we as an industry must continue our efforts to find a solution to the fire problem we will face. As Homer Simpson so artfully once said, “We are the cause and solution to all of our problems.” Although he was referring to “beer” as the culprit, I believe that all of us working in concert, staying in touch with the ever-changing scope of the problem while understanding the consequences and developing solutions both on the front and back end will, ultimately, result in less fire incidents in our waste and recycling facilities even with the growing hazards we face.
The fact is having fires is okay as long as you can catch and safely suppress them before they become a major incident. There are several industries that have inherent fire risk in their operations. These industries typically have some sort of protection that makes this risk manageable. The approach that I recommend with regards to lowering your operations risk profile is:
1. Prevention: The most important part of fire prevention is to develop a plan of attack. Prevention is the basic blocking and tackling and should include all components of minimizing the potential number of events that can occur at your facility.
2. Internal Response: This is key. I typically tell folks that early detection is the key to catching and mitigating a fire early. The goal is not just to catch a fire when there are flames, but to also understand that there are situations where hot spots can be cooled before they flame. The goal is to set the trip wire as early in the process as possible. This can be done through top-grade thermal detection in combination with smoke and other analytics and, most importantly, a highly trained agent able to weed through false positives in an effort to fight only the incidents that need fighting.
3. Professional Response: Another extremely important part of the internal response is to prepare the professional response. Investing in having the proper equipment for the fire department onsite can be a huge timesaver. Even going as far as attached and rollout hoses so that the firefighters can immediately start applying suppressant to the affected area can make a huge difference. Most importantly, having an active relationship with your local fire department is imperative.
With all of the positive momentum, we are still a long way from solving the fire issues we face. In 2019 we experienced a rash of reported injuries both directly and indirect due to these fire incidents. Most of these injuries were “heat stroke” experienced by the dedicated fire professionals fighting these fires during in the sweltering heat of the summer months. In addition, we saw insurance companies raising premiums and even walk away from covering our industry’s properties due to the growth in shredder and lithium ion claims they were experiencing which is outlined further in the “Consequences” section of the Annual Report.
Ultimately, as an industry, we must make a choice. We need to focus on dealing with the inherent risk of fires we encounter by developing processes and solutions that catch and suppress fires as quickly as possible. We spend so much of our time and resources on educating the public of the hazards of improper recycling in an effort to get these hazards out of the recycling stream. The issue that we face is that education only focuses on one piece of the problem. We see these hazards in construction and demolition, metal recycling, municipal solid waste processing and more. Do not get me wrong, educating the public on their unintended effects is important (See: https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/local-news/oh-cuyahoga/ohio-recycling-facility-fires-have-local-company-calling-for-better-consumer-recycling-habits), but in my opinion, we can get more bang for our buck investing in safety processes, plans and technologies that truly mitigate the fire risks before they have a chance to become a major incident.
We need to keep up the fight. The day will come where the number of fire incidents in our facilities, especially the major fire incidents, will catch up to the danger, and we will see these reported numbers steadily decreasing. For those of you out there who are contributing to the solution through your company, organization or yourself, I appreciate your continued efforts. | WA
Ryan Fogelman, JD/MBA, is Vice President of strategic partnerships for Fire Rover (Ferndale, MI). He is focused on bringing innovative safety solutions to market. He has been compiling and publishing monthly “The Reported Waste & Recycling Facility Fire In The US/CAN” and the “Waste & Recycling Facility Fire Annual Report.” Fogelman speaks regularly on the topic of the scope of fire problems facing the waste and recycling industries, detection solutions, proper fire planning and early-stage fire risk mitigation and is on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee for Hazardous Materials. Ryan can be found on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/ryanjayfogelman/)or at firstname.lastname@example.org.