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Among the piles of waste, a dark cloud of smoke appears inside a material recovery facility (MRF). A worker emerges onto the tip floor and uses his radio to alert others, but an operator in Denver monitoring the facility is one step ahead of them.

An infrared camera detects the pile of material that is glowing red. A cursor on the remote operator’s computer screen hovers over the hot spot. Before employees attempt to climb over heaps of material to get to the fire, a remote-controlled nozzle dispenses gallons of firefighting foam over the area, extinguishing the flames.

There’s an inherent risk of fire in waste and recycling, and that risk is increasing.” –Ryan Fogelman, vice president of strategic partnerships at Fire Rover

This scenario isn’t a look into the future. This new-age technology exists today to prevent and manage fires at MRFs and transfer stations, and it is becoming more widely accepted in the waste and recycling industry as the risk of fire is at the forefront of a national conversation. Waste management companies, including Phoenix-based Republic Services, are increasingly using a combinational approach of heat monitoring cameras, foam dispensers and employee training programs to prevent major fires from occurring at their facilities.

Inherent risk

Ryan Fogelman, vice president of strategic partnerships at Fire Rover, has been tracking and analyzing fires reported at waste and recycling facilities since 2016. Just last year alone, his data shows 365 fires were reported at waste facilities across the U.S. and Canada.

Through his data collection efforts, Fogelman has observed certain trends, including a “huge spike” in waste fires during the summer and during the fourth quarter of the year, as well as an increase of fires at scrap metal facilities (the number of incidents went from 72 reported fires in 2016 to 145 in 2018.) Fogelman’s data doesn’t pinpoint the cause of each fire, but stockpiled inventory at facilities in the wake of China’s National Sword Policy and an increase in lithium-ion batteries being managed in waste facilities have played a role in the spike, he says.

Fires have become a much bigger part of the public conversation in recent years, Fogelman observes. He says companies have become much more transparent in discussing fire-related incidents, recalling examples of Houston-based Waste Management CEO Jim Fish publicly revealing how many transfer stations fires the company experienced and Portland, Maine-based Ecomaine sharing a video on its website of a fire caused by a lithium-ion battery.

There’s good reason these companies are breaching the topic of fire prevention, Fogelman says—more than 70 percent of fires cause disruption in business ranging from one day to six months, and the problem isn’t going away.

“There’s an inherent risk of fire in waste and recycling, and that risk is increasing,” Fogelman says.

“From when a truck driver collects recyclables and municipal solid waste (MSW) at the curb to when materials are sorted at the transfer station and then baled or sent to the landfill, there’s risk in everything we do,” says Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services.

Although fires can start for a multitude of reasons, lithium-ion batteries have dominated the conversation recently.

“In a recycling setting, where you have loose, dry material, that’s a dangerous situation,” Keller says. “We’ve seen an increase in incidents where we have a fire and the cause of origin is lithium-ion batteries.”

At Republic, fire risk prevention starts with public outreach. Republic works with several associations, including the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), to get the word out on what should be placed in waste and recycling bins. They also have easily accessible tips and resources at recyclingsimplified.com, Keller says.

“We’ve been helping to form a narrative with expanded public education around the inherent risk and dangers of these types of batteries,” Keller says. “We’re trying to broadcast those types of materials don’t belong in recyclable or municipal solid waste streams. They should be taken to appropriate recycling facilities or national takeback programs at big-box stores.”

Early detection

Experts say fires can double in size every minute, so early detection is key.

Republic uses a combination of live remote monitoring with cameras, infrared technology, on-site training and fire suppressing foam systems at some facilities to detect and control fires.

“The operator gets an alarm that there’s a rise in temperature in the facility and can see through both visual and infrared [systems] what’s going on,” Keller says about the foam suppression system. “Sometimes the fire isn’t always visible at the surface. Sometimes you have something going on deep in a pile of material, and the system can aim that nozzle and discharge foam remotely. We’ve had a few of those instances, and fortunately, those systems have knocked those fires down.”

Usually, fire incidents happen when workers are at the facility, Keller says, so training plays a key role in quick response times, as well as helping employees know when to call a fire department. Keller says the majority of Republic’s facilities also have cameras, some with an infrared system, that provide early detection.

We’ve seen an increase in incidents where we have a fire, and the cause of origin is lithium-ion batteries.” –Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services

“That’s new on the technology side,” Keller says about the infrared cameras. “A lot of our facilities have 45-foot ceilings. Smoke detectors aren’t effective. By the time smoke gets to the ceiling, it would be too late, so we’re playing around with other ways to get after early detection.”

While heat detection is new for Republic, so are the foam suppression systems.

“There’s not many in our network,” Keller says. “We’re looking at installing more, but there’s just a handful of facilities where we have that capacity. That’s emerging. We’ve been installing them at new facilities that we’ve built and installing them at facilities that represent significant investment.”

Republic has tested different fire prevention systems over the years, Keller says, and will continue to use a combination of technology and safety best practices to mitigate the risk of fire.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” Keller says. “It’s an area of focus for us, and I think it’s become more of an issue for the industry. There’s an increase in the number of incidents that the industry is experiencing. There’s more focus on better training, better policy, better prevention and better education, but there’s no silver bullet.”

Understanding best practices

After experiencing a series of fires that caused facilities to shut down in 2015, Advanced Disposal, based in Ponte Vedra, Florida, set out to understand fire prevention best practices to better protect its investments. Brent Shows, director of operations for recycling and transfer stations at Advanced Disposal, says fires not only present risk to employees and lead to revenue loss, but also interrupt business operations and can cause tensions between hauling companies that need to divert material after incidents. They also can be a “public relations nightmare,” he says.

“It’s just an immense burden on the company,” Shows says. “We were trying to figure out how these fires were happening and what best practices we were not doing. It’s simple, but things start to get overlooked when you have multiple facilities. We grew a lot by acquisitions, and a lot of these facilities didn’t have any protection.”

One of the best practices Advanced Disposal learned while doing a case study was to “keep material moving.”

“It’s easier said than done, especially in the current recycling climate, but the less material you have at the site, the size of the fire and the chances of you having one are greatly reduced,” Shows says.

Advanced Disposal has rolled out a strategic action plan that covers the next five years. It includes implementing a preplacement plan with local fire departments, training employees and installing camera systems at high-risk facilities.

“You have to determine where the greatest risk is at your operation and what facilities are most important,” Shows says. “Have we had incidents since [rolling out the plan]? Yes, [they’ve been] small, but I feel we’re much better protected today than we were in 2015 and before. We’re still working on our plan every year.”

The author is the digital editor of the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at kmaile@gie.net.