‘Over 600 fires in bin lorries and recycling centres’ caused by batteries inside electricals

Not-for-profit Material Focus has identified that over 600 fires in waste trucks and sites are caused by batteries that haven’t been removed from electricals.

Lithium-ionTo gather the findings, 58 UK local authorities were surveyed – 90 per cent of which stated that fires caused by batteries are an ‘increasing problem’. According to Material Focus, three times more fires are caused by batteries in the waste stream than previously reported, which ‘highlights the significance of the issue’.

If batteries, or electricals containing batteries, end up inside bins or recycling lorries with other materials then they are crushed in the waste and recycling process. The research warns that this increases the chance that they could be punctured and self-combust, setting fire to surrounding dry and flammable waste and recycling.

As a result, these fires hold potential to endanger the public and waste truck operators by causing fires on streets, and waste centres across the UK, while costing local councils millions of pounds. 

According to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), 48 per cent of all waste fires in the UK each year are caused by Lithium-ion batteries. This costs ‘some £158 million annually to waste operators, fire services and the environment’. 

Research by Material Focus also found that ‘up to 45 per cent of householders are unaware of the fire risk if they don’t safely dispose of batteries, with a quarter of householders unsafely throwing them away’. As well as this, ‘40 per cent of householders are unaware of any information regarding how they should safely recycle their batteries’.

In response to this issue, Material Focus is launching the ‘Stop Battery Fires Campaign’, with the aim of raising awareness of actions that householders can take to prevent fires.

Over 70 local authorities are participating in the campaign and will promote the following: “Never bin hidden batteries, or electricals, don’t put them in your rubbish or recycling bins as they could then start fires in bin lorries on your street. Instead, remove batteries from electricals if you can and recycle the batteries and electricals separately. If you can’t remove the batteries then always recycle your electricals separately.”

Material Focus has highlighted that ‘smaller, frequently used and often cheaper electricals, such as toothbrushes, shavers and toys, often contain batteries’. It says that these electricals are often not known to contain batteries and found that 25 per cent of adults ‘don’t really know what to do with small electricals with chargeable built-in batteries’.

This follows similar research conducted by the ESA and Eunomia in 2021, which identified that 201 fires were caused by battery fires. Although the two pieces of research followed different methodologies, Material Focus says that its research indicates that fires caused by batteries are potentially a far bigger issue than previously reported.

Other recent research commissioned by Material Focus found that two vapes are thrown away every second, wasting ‘scarce minerals needed for electric cars’ and also creating fire risk due to the ‘hidden’ lithium inside vape batteries.

Scott Butler, Executive Director of Material Focus, said: “People should never bin their electricals or their portable batteries. If they can, they should remove any hidden batteries from their electricals and recycle the batteries and electricals separately. If they can’t remove the batteries then they should recycle their electricals separately as always. 

“Having listened to the numerous stories of flames engulfing waste and recycling trucks as they drive down residential streets, it’s important that we all take action now to keep our streets, householders, waste and local authority staff, and firefighters safe.  People can find their nearest recycling point for batteries and electricals by visiting our recycle your electricals website.”

Mark Andrews, National Fire Chief’s Council Waste fires lead added: " We urge people to recycle electricals and batteries and not to dispose of them with general household waste. People are often surprised to hear that batteries can cause fires in both bin lorries and waste plants, but they do and as we use and dispose of more electronic devices these incidents are not rare.

"These fires can be challenging for fire services to deal with, have a significant impact on local communities and present a real risk to staff working on lorries and waste plants. Everyone can do their bit and prevent fires by ensuring they dispose of electrical items correctly."