Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA), explains why recycling centres are often a source of ignitable material.
It is well documented that at Christmas time, household waste in the UK increases by 30 per cent placing recycling centres under pressure in January from the vast amounts of paper, plastic, cardboard and mixed waste that cannot be recycled. A more significant challenge for operators of these facilities is the threat of fire, with on average more than 300 fires per year. These fires not only pose an obvious danger to the health of those nearby, but they also have major environmental implications and significant costs to businesses due to property loss.
A fire at the North West Recycling facility in Carlisle on November 8th 2021 is typical of such events. It required six appliances and specialist equipment including aerial ladder platforms and a water bowser from Cumbrian Fire and Rescue Service to tackle the blaze. Hundreds of tonnes of mixed waste caught fire at the premises on the Rockcliff Industrial Estate along with the roof containing asbestos.
While there were no reported injuries in the blaze, the impact on the local community and environment was significant with local road closures, residents forced to close windows and doors due to harmful smoke and several measures employed to minimise the impact of pollution to the local environment.
The fire in Carlisle was not an isolated incident and was one of many recycling centre fires in 2021-2022. On January 31st, 60 firefighters, 12 appliances and specialist equipment including aerial ladder platforms, high volume pumps from Nottingham Fire and Rescue were needed to tackle a huge blaze at Nottingham Recycling on Abbeyfield Road in Lenton.
While there were no reported injuries in the blaze and the surrounding businesses were not in use at the time, the impact on the local community and environment was significant with the closure of a major ‘A’ road, residents forced to close windows and doors due to harmful smoke and a number of measures employed to minimise the impact of pollution to the local environment. What remains of the circa 1700m2 building used to recycle waste cardboard was demolished and disposed of.
Recently there has been much discussion on discarded batteries as a likely ignition source of the fire at such sites. A report from the Environmental Services Association found that lithium-ion batteries were responsible for around 48 per cent (around 200) of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year and costing some £158m annually.
There will be much focus on these ‘hidden’ batteries and how to handle them. However, the threat from large quantities of combustible waste will remain. The underlying fire record of waste sector continues to be typified by large events, numbers of firefighters required to contain blazes and reporting of high volumes of smoke and contaminants. Furthermore, fire water run-off requires monitoring by the relevant agency and there is the environmental impact of disposing of the damaged properties and the costs, resources and materials required to repair and rebuild them.
Preventing large costly fires is possible through a combination of strategies. One of the most effective strategies is the use of appropriately designed, automatic sprinkler systems which contain and control fires before the Fire and Rescue Service arrives. They therefore help minimise the wider impact of unmanageable fires, reducing costs to business and the economy as a whole. Importantly, by limiting any fire damage, they allow businesses to resume operations quickly, often within hours of the incident. This was adequately demonstrated by a fire at a Biffa waste site in Irlam in January 2021. Fire sprinklers fitted at the site activated, quickly putting the fire out and minimising the damage caused as a result of the incident.