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Is The Waste & Recycling Industry Facing A Fire Epidemic?

Learn More Is The Waste & Recycling Industry Facing A Fire Epidemic? There is certainly no simple answer to that question, but it is an issue that needs addressing. The Merriam-Wester Dictionary defines an epidemic, "as an outbreak or product of sudden rapid spread, growth, or development." Although we have been faced with facility fires in the waste and recycling industry for years, we are just now seeing the real extent of the problem.

According to the NFPA between 2009-2013: "U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 37,000 fires at industrial or manufacturing properties each year, with annual losses from these fires estimated at 18 civilian deaths, 279 civilian injuries, and $1 billion in direct property damage" (See: "Fires in U.S. Industrial or Manufacturing Properties"). In an article penned by Stephen Watkins, "Preventing the Five Major Causes of Industrial Fires and Explosions" he states that the five main causes of manufacturing and industrial fires: (1) hot works; (2) dust explosions; (3) flammable liquids and gasses; (4) faulty equipment and machinery, and; (5) electrical hazards (See: Preventing The Five Major Causes Of Industrial Fires & Explosion). Although these risks certainly need to be accounted for, there is a proliferation of unique risks that we face in our waste and recycling operations.

Just look at the increase in lithium-ion batteries in our waste stream as the perfect storm. 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"). How this increase correlates to waste and recycling facilities fires is something we honestly do not know, but what we do know is that at the very minimum there is an anecdotal effect.

First, we must ask why do lithium-ion batteries fail? According to Paul Shearing, a chemical engineer at the University College London, "batteries can blow up or melt when internal electrical components short-circuit, when mechanical problems crop up after a fall or an accident, or when they are installed incorrectly" (See: "Why some Lithium-Ion Batteries Explode"). Imagine our existing waste and recycling life cycle, from trash to final separation. There are an infinite number of danger points where damage can occur to a tiny lithium-ion battery increasing the risk of a mini-explosion. Watch this example of what happens when a lithium-ion battery is damaged:

Why don't we just recycle the lithium-ion batteries? The good new is that the industry has finally figured out a way to recycle lithium-ion batteries (See: Recycling Lithium From Batteries Now More Efficient), but in practicality, they are so small that they can sneak into a ton of places where they do not belong. Take a look at this video that shows a lithium-ion battery that snuck it is way through a shredder to cause a mini explosion. Before the Fire Rover, we had no real idea of what caused these types fires, just educated guesses based on our evaluation of the scene after an incident. When these mini-explosions occurred out of sight or after hours, they could have caused significant damage

The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries is only getting greater. 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 (See: "Apple's New Wireless Headphones Could Be Tough to Recycle"). German supplier Robert Bosch GmbH and Japanese battery partner GS Yuasa Corp. aim to sell a lithium ion battery by 2020 that slashes production costs in half and delivers twice the energy density of today's batteries, a top Bosch executive said (See: "Bosch Sees Big Opportunity For lithium Ion Batteries"). The less expensive and more powerful they get, the more issues the waste and recycling industry will face, as the number of lithium-ion batteries explode from today's baseline.

In Stephen's article mentioned above, he suggests the steps that manufacturing and industrial organizations should embark upon to mitigate and avoiding the risk of fire should be: (1) Conduct a hazard analysis; (2) Establish fire prevention and emergency procedures; (3) Provide fire safety training; (4) Implement a regular housekeeping routine; (5) Inspect and maintain your equipment and systems (See: Preventing The Five Major Causes Of Industrial Fires & Explosion). I would only suggest that we add one more step to mitigating and avoiding fire risks. Add a level of proven thermal technology and proactive detection and manual remote suppression to the safety and operations departments tool belt in order to drastically reduce the risk of a fire incident occurring at our waste & recycling facilities.

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