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 the current position represents the thin end of the wedge, and that there’s an urgent need to implement measures to divert Li-ion batteries from the residual and mixed recycling waste streams before the incidence of fires worsens.

Energising solutions

At present, the focus is on minimising the impacts of Li-ion batteries once they are already 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, efforts need to shift to preventing 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, and has identified Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as a key tool for helping to achieve improved recycling performance. Current producer responsibility systems for batteries and WEEE set out requirements for waste collection, treatment, recycling and disposal, and are driven by recycling targets. The batteries recycling target is currently 45% of those placed on the market but Li-ion batteries have not been sufficiently captured – despite ‘other’ batteries (many of which are Li-ion batteries) making up 96% of the 39,533 tonnes of batteries placed on the market in 2019, they only accounted for around 33% of the tonnage of batteries separately collected in 2019, while lead acid batteries made up 61%.

Reasons for this imbalance include:

  • the lag time between Li-ion batteries being placed on the market and then entering the waste stream;
  • many batteries not being removed from WEEE, either due to the consumer not knowing they are there or the batteries being difficult to remove; and
  • a lack of convenient battery recycling points.

Moreover, by setting recycling targets by weight, Li-ion batteries, which are typically lightweight, are undervalued, despite the serious fire risk they pose when present in residual and mixed recycling waste streams.

Charging system

EPR needs to focus on getting these batteries out of the residual and mixed recycling waste streams, and ensure consumers are aware of the fire risks posed by Li-ion batteries. Revised 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;
  • Requiring producers to implement kerbside collection schemes;
  • Wider rollout of store take-back schemes, beyond current statutory requirements; and
  • the infrastructure controls (suppression and detection systems) which are required to protect their facilities and assets from fires arising from the incorrect disposal of Li-ion batteries, which are currently borne by private and public sector waste operators.

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.

Extending EPR is just one of the potential solutions to the issue of battery-powered waste fires. Others include taking more of a regulatory route, such as a ban on placing WEEE and batteries in residual and mixed recycling waste streams; and focus on making it convenient to recycle batteries by requiring local authorities to put separate kerbside collections in place for WEEE and Li-ion batteries. However, enforcement and new services would need to be funded, and unless the public sector is to pick up the cost, financial responsibility will need to be given to producers.

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

You can read Eunomia’s report, ‘Cutting Lithium-ion Battery Fires in the Waste Industry’, on the Eunomia website.

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