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American Waste and Recycling Facility Fires Spike in 2018

facility fires
(Photo: A scrap yard fire near Denver in early July. Credit: @RyanO_KDVR on Twitter)

Waste and recycling facility fires across the United States and Canada surged starting in the spring. During the first four months of the year alone, there was actually 93% uptick compared to the same period last year, a scrap metal and recycling fire security expert found.

Throughout the summer it seemed like there was a blaze every other day. A metal recycling facility fire north of downtown Denver sent up a plume of black smoke visible for miles in early July. Fire crews battled an enormous blaze at a recycling facility outside Calgary on July 18. At one point during a recycling yard fire in East Denton, Texas, earlier this month, 50 to 60 firefighters were on the scene.

Ryan Fogelman is vice president of business development for Southfield, Michigan-based company Fire Rover, which makes fire detection technology for scrap metal and recycling customers. In an article published by Recycling Industry News, Fogelman wrote, “I have been reporting the waste and recycling facility fires since February 2015 and I am witnessing the monthly data unfold with the rest of you.”

He charted 37 US and Canadian facility fire incidents in March and then 36 in April, making it one of the highest months on record as well as more than the number of fires that occurred in both April 2016 and April 2017 combined.

Then in June, Fogelman updated his report in a LinkedIn article. “May had the highest number of fires in any month since I began reporting facility fires — and then June matched May’s,” he wrote. From June 2017 to June 2018, he chronicles 377 unique reported waste and recycling facility fire incidents in both countries. During the period from June 2016 to June 2017, there were 268.

Although Fogelman doesn’t have an answer for the spike in fires this year, he does outline several factors that could be contributing to the increase:

  • Lithium-ion batteries. Finding the exact cause of a fire incident is more of an art than a science, Fogelman says. However, there are more lithium-ion batteries entering the waste stream. He posts several videos of fires, including one where a trailer full of mislabeled lithium-ion batteries was sent through the normal waste stream instead of to recycling.
  • Hot and dry weather. “Global warming certainly isn’t helping the situation,” Fogelman wrote. Citing a NOAA report, he adds that record heat means that every year since 1997 has been warmer than average in the US. “We know from the data that drier and hotter weather has a negative effect on the number of fires our facilities face.”
  • China’s waste and recycling restrictions. “The issue is that as the traditional market for recyclable materials is drying up and the supply of recyclables is staying steadfast,” Fogelman wrote in June, before the latest tariffs were announced. “Due to lack of a market, we are experiencing an increase in the amount of material inventory across the globe.” That means dangerous inventory pileups. Beyond the US and Canada, waste and recycling facilities have caught fire this summer in Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
  • Better awareness. “In the early days, every executive that I spoke with asked me to document the true scope of the problem,” Fogelman wrote. “There was a lack of transparency to the fire issues the waste and recycling industry had been facing.” More openness about the problem from companies generated more awareness, along with more reporting from news outlets.

In a Recycling International white paper published this month, Fogelman and insurance experts John Schumacher and Jim Emerson recommend that facility owners and managers lower their risk profiles with specific strategies that include installing thermal cameras, training employees to start a fire pump, having a working automatic sprinkler system, and having manually operable roof vents.

“There is a significant hurdle that we face as an industry in these fire incidents,” Fogelman wrote. “Fortunately, these hurdles are not insurmountable.”

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