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Does anyone know how many fires have occurred at Waste & Recycling facilities in Queensland this year?  Data obtained by the Waste to Opportunity Enterprise, for the calendar year 2016, shows we had 123 fires at Queensland’s waste and recycling facilities which were attended by QFES personnel, showing a significant rise from the 96 fires attended by QFES during 2015, and the 114 fires in 2014.

Of course, this is just reported incidents attended by QFES. Trying to determine the scale of the non-reported fire incidents is much more difficult. And as with everything waste and recycling related, there is significant variation in data collection between agencies and jurisdictions which makes a process of benchmarking and trend analysis complex.  As such, the issue of waste fires is poorly understood, with limited information on, the causes, number of incidences, risks location and their impact on society, the environment and the economy. In particular, where there are significant releases of hazardous contaminants into the atmosphere, soil/ground and local (surface and ground) waters. Whilst high-profile or high-impact fires reach media outlets, the majority go unnoticed by all but the local stakeholders (including workers and impacted residents and businesses).

According to recent annual reporting of statistics, published by fire departments across Australia[1], there were:

  • 5,652 rubbish fires in NSW[2],
  • 3,583 other fires (which includes rubbish) in Western Australia[3],
  • 1,003 outside rubbish fires in South Australia[4]; and
  • 1,723 (16%) of all fires attended by the fire services in Tasmania[5].

So how did Queensland compare to other jurisdictions in terms of fires which were attended by the relevant emergency service personnel? In the United Kingdom, Chief Fire Officers Association reported 250 fires for 2015 at waste & recycling companies; and for the rolling 12 months from March 2016 until Feb 2017, US & Canadian waste & recycling facilities have experienced 282 reported fires attended by emergency personnel.  So, when looking at the ratio of reported fires which were attended by the emergency services coupled with the total number of facilities, – Queensland appears to have a significantly larger proportion of fires. Current research is underway to gather all available data and determine if this is the case, with the research report available mid-year.

The economic impacts (direct and indirect) from waste fires are significant. An example of this was the case on 22-23 February, when a thick black cloud spread across Sydney’s west from a massive fire raging inside a waste recycling facility in Chullora. Almost 100 firefighters fought the blaze on the first day. The plume was visible for over 10kms and it caused some disruption to Bankstown Airport. The disruption to local traffic and businesses (not just the business experiencing the fire) was also extensive. Neighbouring streets, which located other commercial business, were closed on the first day to prevent injury, protect human health and make way for 23 fire trucks and a mobile command centre at the scene. Or the SKM Coolaroo recycling plant fire in July which resulted in the evacuation of over 100 homes and hospitalisation of several individuals and which led to the establishment of a joint government taskforce to target key resource recovery sites. The sheer utilisation of the emergency service personnel during these incidents also has indirect costs associated with the fire (from overtime to operational complexities of responding to other critical incidents which arose over this time). Indeed, these risks are becoming high-profile and are being recognised not only by the community but also the insurance industry resulting in rising premiums.

These significant costs and risks have been documented in other research1 which aimed to understand the risks associated with waste fires in Australia to better examine how the potential impacts of these fires can be minimised, showing the direct risks posed to people, the environment and the economy. This research concluded that there is a growing need to take waste fires seriously with regular reporting, risk management strategies and effective guidelines to prevent both the occurrence and severity of future waste fires. The report recommended that all States in Australia be compelled to keep an accurate record of the occurrence and size of waste fires as they occur and that these statistics be regularly reviewed to identify the potential for emerging risks. How these common-sense but critical findings have been transposed into action is still unclear.

The Future of Fires in the Industry

One thing is certain. The frequency of fires at waste and recycling facilities and, indeed, across all of the infrastructure (including the collection vehicles), is increasing, and there are emerging patterns for the cause of some of these fires.

We are all aware that almost all materials entering a collection truck or a MRF, for example, are flammable, some more than others and some with the capacity to be explosive. Additionally, you have dust, hot machines and other heat sources, often in a confined space.

This combination provides all the ingredients for fire. But for those of us tracking the data and the nature of the incidents, we are seeing household batteries as an emerging issue, corresponding directly to the influx of batteries into the waste stream as electronics become obsolete.

As an example, on 14 March, a UK collection crew reported an explosion that rocked their vehicle and that could be heard at the far end of the street as they proceeded along their designated (domestic recycling) collection route. Fortunately, the crew responded quickly, parking the vehicle up on a grassed area away from infrastructure and parked cars, and immediately dumped the entire load of waste, which allowed the attending fire crews to thoroughly dowse it whilst the road was closed to ensure public safety.  The fire investigation team identified the cause of the fire as a nickel–cadmium battery, the sort used in everyday household items such as remote-control toys and torches.

The direct financial cost of this fire was that the six tonnes of recycling had to go to landfill as it was contaminated, as well as the cost of the fire crews, the waste crews who supported the situation and kept collection rounds running, the damage to the truck and the clean-up costs. The recycling crews’ quick actions in dumping the load in a safe place before the fire could disable the truck’s hydraulics, likely saved the truck from being consumed by the fire.

So, is this the start of a perfect storm? Will an increase in batteries (lithium-ion, nickel-cadmium) correlate to increased waste and recycling fires? Across the existing waste and recycling life cycle, from household and business collections to separation/sorting, recycling or disposal, there are an infinite number of danger points where damage can occur to a tiny battery, increasing its risk of explosion. This is something the industry needs to be monitoring and reporting closely, particularly given current anecdotal evidence. How we undertake the monitoring component is going to include technology assistance, particularly where fires all too often occur out of sight or when the facility is closed, leaving us to determine the cause after the event.

The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries into products and, by default, the waste (and recycling) streams is going to increase.

For example, Apple is going to add an estimated three billion mini lithium-ion batteries to the market alone with their new AirPod wireless headphones over the next ten years which have tiny glued-in lithium batteries that make recycling difficult. The AirPods contain three lithium-ion batteries and the lithium-ion batteries in AirPods cannot be shredded because they could catch fire while being destroyed.

According to Industrial Minerals, “forecast demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase up to seven-fold by 2024″ (see: ‘Battery demand to drive lithium, cobalt market for years ahead: panel’) driven by product use, such as personal electronics, electric cars and household energy storage, as they get less expensive and more powerful.

The Li-ion market was less than 6 GWh10 years ago, yet by 2016, this market is estimated to have surpassed 70 GWh. The number of applications for these batteries is also expanding rapidly, and their market share is rising, currently forecasting average annual battery market growth of 14 per cent per year out to 2025, when the market is expected to reach 223 GWh.

Fires are going to continue to impact the sector, and where the fire starts in the waste/recycling stream, there is no discrimination against or correlation to poorly run operations or state-of-the-art, best practice facilities. What differentiates facilities is the systems and resources they have in place to manage a fire and, ultimately, their response.

[1] Institute of Sustainable Futures. 2016. ‘Waste Fires in Australia: Cause for Concern’. Report commissioned by the Department of the Environment.

[2] NSW: Fire and Rescue NSW, Annual Report 2014-15, 2015, p. 4

[3] WA: Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Annual Report 2014-15, 2015 p.153

[4] SA: South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, Annual Report 2013-14, 2014 p 75

[5] TAS: State Fire Commission, Annual Report 2014-15, 2015 p. 19