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Rob Ratcliff was the Content and Community Manager of IFSEC Global.com. He is a self-confessed everyman in the world of security and fire, keen to learn from the global community of experts who have been a part of IFSEC for 40 years now.
August 23, 2013

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Recycling Centre Fires Causing Huge Health Risk

A spate of blazes at recycling centres raises the question of whether our drive for sustainability comes at a price.

The night sky is painted orange, and a dark silhouette hovers on an aerial platform, spraying water into the light, tackling a blaze that has been burning for almost three days already. This isn’t a wildfire, or a building burning, but tonnes of waste waiting to be recycled.

Click here to view Figure 1.

The fire at Bredbury Recycling Centre, near Manchester, is one of at least five that IFSEC Global has been made aware of in August so far. It broke out on Tuesday night, and as of Friday afternoon shows little sign of abating. In his latest update, station manager Paul Whittaker speaks of meeting with the police, the environment agency, and the council “to develop a plan for the bank holiday weekend.”

Meanwhile in Nottinghamshire, just yesterday, a fire broke out at another recycling centre for the second time in three weeks. The first blaze was sparked on Saturday, August 3, and took them over a week to bring under control. Then yesterday, a second fire broke out in another part of the recycling facility in Worksop.

So what is going on? Why are there so many fires, why do they last so long, and don’t they present a risk to public health and safety?

Difficult to tackle

The why is difficult to answer, but undoubtedly the vast amount of combustible waste, stored in close proximity and in tightly packed conditions, is a huge contributor and has a large amount to do with why the fires last so long.

Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue’s Bryn Coleman explained the problem with the first fire at Worksop:

The fire is seated deep within a large amount of household waste therefore simply putting water onto it meant that only the top was being damped down, while the rest of it was still burning. The more water we put onto it, the more smoke there is, and clearly this is a concern for anyone living nearby.

In most cases firefighters are able to contain the fire and extinguish the majority of the visible flames, but the fire will continue to smoulder underneath the surface. The tactics that officers then use will be to turn the bales and damp them down gradually. Coleman explained on Friday, August 9:

At a meeting on site today, it was decided that the best way forward is to break down the burning rubbish into smaller chunks, damping it down as we go. The site owners will spend the weekend clearing enough space on site for us to do this, and our crews will return on Monday to continue the fire fighting operation.

For firefighters to leave the blaze, which is under control but still burning, is common in these incidents, but it shows how vast an operation this can often be.

Public health

Another significant problem with these blazes is the public health concerns. Many recycling centres are in central locations, unlike landfill sites, which are usually in an area with a lower population density. When these fires break out, Public Health England has to issue its usual advice. Indeed, we found this on each of the reports we read about recent blazes:

Smoke consists of a mixture of gases, liquid droplets and solid particles representing the decomposition and combustion products from fires. Any smoke can be an irritant and as such, if people have to be outdoors, they are advised to avoid outside areas affected by any smoke or ash or to limit the time that they spend in them.

Some of the substances present in smoke can irritate the lining of the air passages, the skin and the eyes. Respiratory symptoms include coughing and wheezing, breathlessness, sputum (phlegm) production and chest pain. If symptoms occur, people should seek medical advice or call NHS 111.

All of this means that firefighters have to work with scientists in order to test the air quality and the makeup of any smoke-carried debris.

#smethwickfire

The scale of the problem facing fire services and public health officials was really underlined by a massive fire in Smethwick, near Birmingham, on June 30, believed to have been caused by a Chinese lantern. The incident was classed a “major incident” and saw 429 calls made to the emergency services — more than three times the daily average. The fire could reportedly be seen over 40 miles away.

Click here to view Figure 2.

In the weeks following the incident, West Midlands Fire Service produced a remarkable video collating all of the data and information it had on the major incident. In response, the issue of Chinese Lanterns was debated in Parliament, and High Street shop Poundland stopped selling them. At the end of the video they make the point that there are 57 recycling centres in the West Midlands alone, which underlines the potential for incidents continuing to stretch fire service resources.

Around 20 fires have struck West Midlands recycling centres this year so far with another breaking out on Monday, August 5.

Click here to view Figure 3.

With so many recycling centres to protect from fire, how long will it be until firefighters are unable to contain the blaze within the confines of the site? With cuts facing fire services across the country, don’t we need to tackle the causes of these fires before serious harm is done to a community?

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FireSafe
FireSafe
August 24, 2013 7:19 am

We had a big fire in Essex at a tyre re-vamping unit, on a Farm/WW11 Airfield, I understand the worker had a small fire, he assumed to extinguishe with his boots! then turned to se a pile of tyres alight. It took out 7 other business units, few had any Fire Protection, the site had nothing. Started mid Morning so lives were at risk.

Sheh
Sheh
August 25, 2013 9:15 am
Reply to  FireSafe

Firesafe here in our region most of the small scale buisnesses are established at a very thickly populated areas and sometimes at the basement of huge buildings as the people who are the owners of these buisnesses are generally not very wealthy and cannot afford to establish there buisness at a separate place. Many a times we have been a victim of severe live as well as property loss but governments are keeping their eyes shut and are letting these buisnesses run as they are without any protection to lives in the surroundings.

manshi
manshi
August 26, 2013 6:58 am
Reply to  Sheh

This is disturbing indeed and I fear that these kind of acts can be another version of the Hiroshima – Nagasaki Bombing. The effects of those nasty acts are still hurting the younger generation who has no clue on what happened at that period of time. Lets hope these kind of acts will not continue further and harm the future of this world. Anything for technology which can prevent these kind of acts.

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 26, 2013 8:17 am
Reply to  manshi

That is a very real concern.  When you don’t know what is burning you can’t really know what damage it is doing.  The way I look at it is how would a city react if I had a fire going in my back yard that was belching out black smoke and people in the the area were complaining about trouble breathing or their eyes burning?  If an individual would find himself facing legal action for endangering the public’s health for the same action then I think the recycling centers should be treated the same way.  It kind of frustrates me… Read more »

JonathanL
JonathanL
August 26, 2013 9:41 am

I think we should consider the alternative, if you take these type of recycling centers away then what do you have?  Landfill?  Illegal dumping?  Most likely a little of both.  As a teenager a brush fire in our neighborhood turned into a four alarm fire when it hit an illegal tire dump site.  The black smoke of the burning tires closed down a four lane highway and reduced visibility as far away as 10 miles.  The neighborhood was evacuated and homes were almost lost.  My point is risk is always there whether it is here or there, we need to… Read more »

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 27, 2013 8:01 am
Reply to  JonathanL

Yes the alternative can be as bad or worse but when you have very large recycling centers and a lot of hazardous materials all in one place it makes accidents like these much much worse and as we’ve seen a few times the fires are not easy to put out.  If I had a couple gallons of old paint in my shed and it caught fire chances are it’s going to be put out rather quickly.  That’s not so easy when you have thousands of gallons of chemicals and flammable materials all stored on one site.

JonathanL
JonathanL
August 27, 2013 12:51 pm
Reply to  safeNsane

I agree, that the chances of placing these things especially hazardous materials that are potentially flammable in one place does greatly increase the chances of a large scale fire, but the center has that knowledge and they are the ones stacking these materials and have the responsibility to ensure that they are safe from such incidents.  Perhaps stronger penalties for incidents that result in environmental damage are needed to ensure that the proper precautions are taken in the first place to prevent these situations or foster a better response when issues do occur.

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 28, 2013 7:23 am
Reply to  JonathanL

I think precautions might be the first step.  I’ve been to a couple recycling centers where chemicals are separated by painted lines on the floor of what is essentially a big garage.  We’ve seen blog entries about fires in other facilities with no barriers to contain a fire.  Similar issues seem to exist in the centers I’ve been to. 

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 28, 2013 9:07 am
Reply to  FireSafe

Where such a fire is caused presumably that person was held criminally responsible?

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 28, 2013 9:08 am
Reply to  JonathanL

I agree in general, of course. But the risk seems to be getting out of hand. Is there larger mitigation that these centres can take? Should waste be doused regularly by automated systems for instance?

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 28, 2013 9:12 am
Reply to  manshi

There’s no way we can compare an act of war to an accidental fire, I don’t think?

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 28, 2013 9:17 am
Reply to  safeNsane

Spot on, safeNsane. If you were to set such a fire yourself you could reasonably expect some consequences from the authorities, so why shouldn’t these places?

SunitaT
SunitaT
August 28, 2013 2:31 pm

@ safeNsane, I don’t see any problem in storing all the hazardous materials in one place. Accidents at such places may be much worse, but dispersing such materials all over the place will certainly increase the frequency of the accidents. Solution lies in improving the security measures to prevent such accidents from happening instead of decreasing the intensity by dispersing waste materials to multiple sites.

SunitaT
SunitaT
August 28, 2013 2:31 pm
Reply to  safeNsane

@ safeNsane, you made a good point here. Recycling centers should be made more accountable and there must be some legal action against them in case of such accidents. Because they are not only responsible for treating the waste materials but also for the safety of recycling sites. After all it is no use protecting the communities from waste materials and making them vulnerable to accidents such as these.

manshi
manshi
August 29, 2013 2:18 am
Reply to  SunitaT

I think there should be a proper system to capture the ill-fatted flame and throw it to some other area if it’s not possible to destroy it. Environmental issues plus human health causes will increase in the near future due to this reason.

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 29, 2013 7:21 am
Reply to  SunitaT

That is pretty much my take on the situation.  We feel good about doing the right thing and taking our old paint, pesticides, etc to someone more capable of handling them and disposing of them properly then we find out that we weren’t necessarily any better off.

adrian bennett
adrian bennett
August 29, 2013 9:19 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

Hi Rob
There are products on the market to protect the machinery and building its just the cost that puts the owners off they should get help for this

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 5:47 am
Reply to  adrian bennett

Well, these are commercial enterprises aren’t they? I suppose my question is ‘what are the margins?’ If they can afford such tech then they should invest, if only to help ensure business continuity.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 5:50 am
Reply to  SunitaT

But doesn’t that then risk creating one mega-fire should the worst happen, on the scale of US wildfires? Also, the sustainability issues of having one single giant waste facility are massive. Transporting all that waste vast distances to be recycled would offset the benefit of recylcing it in the first place.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 5:53 am
Reply to  safeNsane

Couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t make sense to have vast waste management centres, it’s positively unsustainable. And dangerous.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 5:55 am
Reply to  SunitaT

I would like to see local authorities voting with their business. If a recyclying centre can’t prove it’s safe to operate then it doesn’t get the business, simple as that. This would tighten up safety pretty sharpish.

manshi
manshi
August 30, 2013 6:46 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

: Yes I think it’s a good move indeed. This was a long due thing indeed. Atleast lets hope with this the process flow will get organized.      

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 30, 2013 7:24 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

That sounds a lot like the stories I heard a few years ago about the amount of hazardous waste that travels across the country every day.  Aside from the obvious like nuclear waste that some states tried to stop from crossing through there are all kinds of industrial chemicals that are lethal with so much as a few drops on the skin.  Our recycling centers work on a smaller scale but when you’re accepting items from everyone in the community it’s hard to say what you’ve actually got in there.  Hobby scientists have some pretty scary stuff in their garages.

Robert Grossman
Robert Grossman
August 30, 2013 11:56 pm
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

“Local authorities voting with their business”. I couldn’t agree more. You then have all of the consequences of regulatory action without the cost of vigilence and enforcement. Money talks!

peterchurch
peterchurch
July 9, 2015 3:42 pm

Ratcliff

We are currently supplying recycling sites with our F/Cam (CCTV Camera with Flame Detection) the camera will activate alarm in under 20 secs on viewing flame in FOV, the distance is upto 100 mtrs, camera will work both internally/externally.
For further details, please take a look at are website.
http://www.spotfireltd.co.uk

Philja
Philja
September 2, 2016 8:24 am

A major fire in a recycling plant in Belfast , started 2 days ago- slill burning I think. Has the number of fires increased since the oil price went down?
Philja  02/09/16