Waste and recycling sites are seeing more fire risks, amplified by the increasing prevalence of batteries in waste streams and as power sources for operating vehicles and machinery. James Mountain, sales and marketing director at Fire Shield Systems, discusses how a proactive approach to fire safety can benefit waste and recycling businesses.
WASTE streams can carry various materials, each causing different safety risks. The specific contents of waste streams may change over time, based on society’s use and disposal of different materials.
In recent years, batteries, specifically lithium ion (li-ion) batteries, have become increasingly common for waste and recycling businesses. These can be found in a range of waste, such as mobile phones or children’s toys, and are also often used as a sustainable power source for the site’s vehicles and machinery.
For any battery, the main safety risk is thermal runaway, which occurs when the battery cells malfunction after physical damage, mechanical failure or overcharging, for example. In this state, a battery rapidly generates excess heat, leading to combustion, toxic gas emissions and potential explosions. As waste is often processed using heavy-duty machinery, physical damage to batteries in waste streams is increasingly likely, raising the risk of thermal runaway.
Operational downtime and equipment damage
After a fire, operational downtime can be crippling to a waste and recycling business. Even if a small fire causes little damage to equipment, your site could be closed for ongoing risk assessments or investigations.
Too often, waste businesses take a reactive approach to fire safety, waiting for a fire to occur before implementing safety procedures to prevent it. This approach will often lead to operational disruption, reputational damage and increased damage costs.
Case study one: reactive approach
In 2021, a recycling site experienced a large fire at its materials recovery facility (MRF), caused by a battery in the facility’s waste stream. As the site had no fire protection in place, the fire spread quickly, causing whole-site loss.
Rebuilding the entire facility represented a several-million euro investment, excluding operational downtime and reputational costs and any fine/sanctions.
The fire protection system installed after the fire represented a small amount of the total investment. Had this been installed proactively, extensive damages and costs could have been saved.
Case study two: proactive approach
In 2019, a cement company wanted to produce 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.
To stay ahead of the fire risks associated with SRF, the company conducted a full risk assessment. This prompted two bespoke automatic fire protection systems: for the SRF production system – an automatic foam cannon, flame detection system and local application deluge water spray system, and for the SRF storage facility – a type-tested water spray system, activated by heat and flame detection.
By doing this, both sites saved costs, minimised operational downtime risk and ensured the ongoing safety of their teams.
How can you take a proactive approach?
- Site planning and mapping
Your site’s fire prevention plan (FPP) should be informed firstly by a full risk assessment. This will highlight any high-risk areas, such as those storing hazardous or flammable materials. The FPP should then look for ways to minimise these risks, for example, by storing ignition sources at least six metres away from combustible waste.
- Battery storage and processing
Inevitably, your waste facility will encounter batteries in waste streams. When storing these, they should be kept in weatherproof containers, away from any liquids. Any damaged batteries should be isolated, and li-ion batteries should be disconnected from vehicles or machinery.
Your site should also have checks to identify batteries before the waste is processed. However, some will inevitably be missed, which is why you’ll also need a suitable fire detection system that can detect hotspots quickly and implement the appropriate suppression technique to minimise the risk of thermal runaway.
- Waste management and temperature checks
Waste should be monitored regularly to prevent reactions between different materials. When accepting waste, you should first identify the temperature of materials – if any seem unusually hot, they should be quarantined to cool or isolate the risk.
Regular temperature checks of waste piles will also minimise self-combustion. It’s also important that waste isn’t kept in direct sunlight for long, or near any reflective surfaces that can reflect this sunlight onto waste piles.
- Fire detection and suppression
Your fire detection or suppression system should be informed by your site’s individual risk assessment. It should be proportionate to your site’s size, and address the risks associated with the materials you’re handling and your methods for processing these.
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