Waste and recycling: taking a proactive approach to fire safety
As we enter the warmer months, waste and recycling sites are becoming more susceptible to fire risks. These risks are amplified by the increasing prevalence of batteries – both in waste streams and as power sources for operating vehicles and machinery.
James Mountain, sales and marketing director, Fire Shield Systems, discusses the various benefits a proactive approach to fire safety offers waste and recycling businesses – minimising costs and downtime, while maximising safety.
Waste streams inevitably carry a vast range of materials and substances, which can all carry different safety risks. The specific contents of waste streams will change over time, in line with society’s use and disposal of different materials.
More recently, batteries – specifically lithium ion (li-ion) batteries – have become increasingly prevalent in waste streams across the country. These batteries are present in a variety of waste, such children’s toys, mobile phones or WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment), for example. The batteries are also increasingly used in vehicles and machinery, offering a sustainable power source for the site’s day-to-day operations.
When it comes to batteries – regardless of size, shape, type or use – the primary risk is thermal runaway. This is a state that occurs when the cells within the battery malfunction, as a result of physical damage, mechanical failure, overvoltage or overcharging. In this state, a battery will quickly generate excess heat, leading to combustion, toxic gas emissions and potential explosions.
When we look at the number of fires on waste and recycling sites, it’s increasingly clear that batteries are not being disposed of safely in domestic collection systems – and instead, are often disposed of with general household waste or recycling.
Due to the heavy-duty process of waste streams, physical damage to batteries in general waste and recycling is increasingly likely, making the risk of thermal runaway much greater. Additionally, the batteries are also likely to be surrounded by other, potentially combustible, waste, amplifying the potential for fire spread, leading to a ‘domino effect’.
These types of fires not only have the potential to cause equipment damage and operational downtime, but they also pose a significant risk to the safety of site personnel and the surrounding environment.
Operational downtime and equipment damage
In the aftermath of a fire, operational downtime can be crippling to a waste and recycling business. Even if the fire is small with little physical damage to equipment, your site could be closed for ongoing risk assessments or investigations. In this time, you will still need to continue paying your teams, even if they’re temporarily unable to work on site.
All too often, waste and recycling businesses take a reactive approach to fire safety. They wait for the inevitable to happen before doing anything to prevent it. This often leads to prolonged operational disruption, reputational damage and increased damage costs.
Case study one: a reactive approach
In 2021, a recycling site in Ireland experienced a large and damaging fire at its materials recovery facility (MRF). The fire was started by a battery in the waste stream at the facility.
As the site had no fire protection in place, the fire spread quickly, causing whole-site loss and meaning the site needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.
The site required an investment of several million euros to rebuild the entire facility – and this doesn’t include the cost of operational downtime, reputational downtime or any fines/sanctions imposed by the Environment Agency (EA).
The fire protection system installed after the fire represented a small amount of the total investment. Had this been installed proactively, the extensive fire, operational and reputational damage costs could have been saved.
Case study two: a proactive approach
In 2019, a well-known cement company was looking to start producing solid recovered fuel (SRF) using a shredding line at a nearby waste and recycling facility, which would then be stored and used as a fuel source for the cement plant.
SRF is highly-combustible and presents significant fire risks to any waste and recycling site.
To stay ahead of the risks, the company conducted a full risk assessment, in conjunction with the waste and recycling facility.
This informed the need for two bespoke automatic fire protection systems: an automatic foam cannon and flame detection system and a local application deluge water spray system for the SRF production system, as well as a bespoke type-tested water spray system, activated by heat and flame detection for the SRF storage facility.
By taking this decision ahead of a fire occurring, both sites were able to make significant savings, reduce risk of operational downtime and ensure the ongoing safety of their teams.
How can you take a proactive approach?
Here are some of the key things to consider when taking a proactive approach to your site’s fire safety:
- Site planning and mapping
Your site’s fire prevention plan should be informed by a full site risk assessment. This will highlight any high-risk areas, such as those storing hazardous or flammable materials. The fire prevention plan should look to minimise these risks, for example, storing ignition sources at least six metres away from combustible waste.
- Battery storage and processing
Inevitably, your waste site will need to store or process batteries at some point. When it comes to storage, batteries should be kept in weatherproof containers, away from any liquids, and any damaged batteries should be isolated. Li-ion batteries used to power vehicles or machinery should be disconnected from equipment and stored separately.
When it comes to processing, your site should have checks and balances in place to identify batteries before the waste is processed. However, inevitably, some will fall through the cracks. In this case, you will need a suitable fire detection system that is able to detect hotspots quickly and implement the appropriate suppression technique to minimise risk of thermal runaway.
- Waste management and temperature checks
Waste should be monitored regularly to prevent reactions between different types of waste. When accepting waste, you should first identify the temperature of materials. If any materials seem unusually hot, these should be quarantined for a period of time to allow them to cool, or to isolate the risk.
Regular temperature checks for waste piles will also minimise the risk of self-combustion. It’s also important to ensure waste isn’t kept in direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time, or near to reflective surfaces that can reflect direct sunlight onto waste piles.
Once the waste is processed, for example through shredding or chipping, you should also allow time for the heat generated during this process to be released.
- Fire detection and suppression
The fire detection or suppression system that’s right for your site will depend on its individual risk assessment. These should be proportionate to the size of your site, and address the risks associated with the materials your site is processing, as well as the methods it uses to process these.
To minimise operational downtime, reputational costs and extensive repair costs, waste and recycling businesses should look to take a proactive approach to fire safety. For more information, visit Fire Shield Systems or call 0800 975 5767.