Time to take charge of battery-powered waste fires

Eunomia’s Sophie Crossette outlines a recent Eunomia-led project that looked to shed some light on the likely cause of waste fires within the UK.

Rarely does a month pass where a significant waste fire isn’t reported in the trade press. Whether it’s at a waste facility, such as a Household Waste Recycling Centre (HWRC), a plastic reprocessor or a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), or in a Refuse Collection Vehicle, the frequency of waste fires is alarming, and their continued presence continues to impact on the delivery of frontline waste and recycling services.

Despite the introduction of Fire Prevention Plans in 2015 and continued efforts by waste operators to try and prevent and mitigate fires on their site, it seems almost impossible to hold back the flames.

In an attempt to begin to get the issue under control, a recent project led by Eunomia looked to shed some light on the likely cause of waste fires within the UK. By analysing data provided by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), we estimated that 48% of waste fires in the UK could be attributed to lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. This equates to approximately 201 fires each year.

Guilty as charged

Li-ion batteries, commonly found in everyday electrical and electronic goods, can cause fires during waste collection and processing when units accidentally turn on and overheat, or the cells are damaged as material is moved and compacted, generating a heat spark.

While there are a number of recorded waste fires at WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) reprocessing sites, the focus of Eunomia’s work was on the impacts caused when Li-ion batteries, or items containing Li-ion batteries, remain in the residual and mixed recycling waste streams.

This mainly results from consumers being unaware that household items like electric toothbrushes contain Li-ion batteries when disposing of them in their kerbside collections or HWRC general waste, which the ESA is looking to raise awareness of through its Take Charge campaign, or from consumers not trusting recycling companies to safely deal with remaining data on private devices, such as laptops and mobile phones.

Burning holes in pockets

Further analysis and modelling, undertaken as part of Eunomia’s research estimated that the annual cost of all waste fires caused by Li-ion batteries is £158 million. This includes small incidents successfully extinguished by operators, as well as medium and large incidents, which engulf sizeable waste piles and buildings, requiring intervention from the fire service. At present this financial burden is largely shouldered by waste site operators (89.6%), with additional costs incurred by the fire service (3.7%) and Environment Agency (0.4%) from attending incidents.

Finally, this study also identified some of the main impacts on society (1.5%) and the local environment (4.9%) as a result of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and water use from Li-ion waste fires. However, the wider economic impacts caused by road closures, neighbouring business closures and human health are much harder to quantify at a national level.

The UK is not the only country facing a growing issue of waste fires as a result of lithium-ion batteries, America and Canada are also noting an upward trend. The feeling within industry is that we are at the thin end of the wedge if we don’t look to implement measures now to divert Li-ion batteries from the residual and mixed recycling waste streams.

Energising solutions

At the moment, we are attempting to tackle the issue of waste fires from Li-ion batteries once they are in the residual and mixed recycling waste streams. However, to stand a reasonable chance of reducing the number of fire incidents and costs incurred each year, we need to prevent Li-ion batteries, either loose or within small appliances, being placed in the residual and mixed recycling waste streams in the first place.

This will not only require a shift in public awareness but also a significant shift in policy away from an approach that focuses on battery and WEEE recycling targets towards one that addresses the issues and costs incurred when they are incorrectly disposed of.

The UK Government, via the Resources and Waste Strategy and Environment Bill, has set ambitious aims for the waste and resource management sector. They have identified Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as a key tool for helping to achieve improved recycling performance. This raises the question of whether producer responsibility should and could be extended to include the prevention of costly and polluting waste fires. EPR for batteries and WEEE could include covering the costs of:

  • Communication campaigns to help consumers to identify when a product contains a Li-ion battery and highlight the significant issues of Li-ion batteries when incorrectly disposed of to encourage positive behaviour;
  • Implementing kerbside collection schemes;
  • Wider rollout of store take-back schemes, beyond current statutory requirements; and
  • The financial burden placed on the private and public sector from fires and the infrastructure controls (suppression and detection systems) which are required to protect their facilities and assets from the incorrect disposal of Li-ion batteries.

Furthermore, additional components of EPR, such as fee modulation, could be used to financially incentivise battery producers to design products which could help to reduce waste fires. Design considerations could include:

  • Putting radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on batteries so they can be identified by scanning technology for individual bins, vehicles or waste piles;
  • Making Li-ion batteries easier to extract from small electrical appliances to allow separate collection for recycling; and
  • Improving the battery casings to make them harder to damage if they are incorrectly disposed of.

EPR is but one potential solution to the issue of battery-powered waste fires, with others including a potential ban on placing WEEE and batteries in residual and mixed recycling waste streams and an increased focus on separate collection of WEEE and Li-ion batteries, which could provide a longer-term solution to reduce the number of waste fires occurring each year.

However, there is no single policy alone that will provide a comprehensive solution. Ultimately, only a continued and increased effort by waste operators, consumers and producers working in collaboration is required across a range of measures to really start to take charge of this burning issue.

Read Eunomia’s report, ‘Cutting Lithium-ion Battery Fires in the Waste Industry’, here.

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