RWM 2018: The burning issue of waste fires

This September, Fire Safety Engineer Angus Sangster will address the UK’s resource management sector at RWM Exhibition 2018 – delivering an educational seminar on building waste centres to tackle fire risk at an early stage. Sangster will be amongst a whole lineup of waste professionals dealing with similar issues at the show; providing an invaluable platform for networking and knowledge sharing. Tickets are free and available at

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There appears to be a paradox within the recycling and waste industry. With the UK missing its 2020 recycling deadline and committing to an ambitious and larger target by 2035, the need for increased results will see larger-scale waste plants, and more of them as well. But it is here where the paradox lies; as the notorious trend of fires at waste plants means that increasing scale will ultimately mean increasing risk across the country.

This year alone has already seen a number of high profile waste fires, including one up in Sunderland that burned for 25 days before being extinguished. Indeed, it was only a few months back that recycling firm Mid UK were fined £100,000 and had to reimburse the fire department £230,000 for a waste fire that happened at one of their sites – a frank reminder of how serious the situation can become for all parties involved.

Fires are not only a threat to Britain’s dedication to achieving their recycling targets, but also to the British environment, due to the large amount of chemicals being released into the air via smoke plumes.

This poses a question: just how do we tackle the need for better recycling rates whilst also making sure the sites are safe and the important work that happens there goes unhindered? Understanding the cause of these fires could be the best route to stopping them.RWM 2018: The burning issue of waste fires

Senior Fire Safety Engineer at International Fire Consultants, Angus Sangster, has some key insights into the issue: “There is ongoing research, as many aspects of the nature of waste fires are still not fully understood, but it is clear that with our current level of understanding and available technology, there is not a single golden bullet that will address the issues.

“As to the cause of the fires, there is still some debate. There is no evidence supporting the notion that biological action will cause spontaneous combustion. We have conducted numerous experiments and cannot generate sufficient activation energy with biological processes alone. It would appear that the cause is a combination of biology and chemical contamination. We know that batteries and acid/base combinations will generate sufficient energy.”

The danger of these fires is clear, and with the way in which waste is stored and compacted, it creates a perfect storm for long-burning fires that are difficult to douse. The fires start in the centre of the waste piles and then grow outward, making tackling these fires a huge task for any fire-fighting team. Fires like the one that burned in Sunderland for 25 days don’t just damage the production line of the recycling centre, but also poses major risks to water sources and air quality of the surrounding area as well.

Sangster continued: “There’s still a lot to be discovered when it comes to waste fires and the sparks that set them off, but also in the most effective methods to douse these fires. Modern fire suppression technology, while impressive, has its limitations. In the waste management sector there are very specific fire dynamic behaviours at play that the current arrangements of fire suppression technologies are just not designed for. The waste materials are very resistant to the ingress of water at the best of times, but in deep piles there is the potential for processes that are very similar to coal seam fires. In this event, fixed fire suppression in the traditional sense will have very limited beneficial effect. On the contrary, it will just provide a significant quantity of polluted fire water and make firefighting more difficult.”

Fires have been an issue within the waste industry for many years, dating all the way back to the turn of the millenium. There’s a possibility of issues bleeding into one another as well, as the public’s recycling knowledge isn’t at the point it needs to be to begin effectively solving the problem at the root cause. Sangster added: “For example, I suspect that fly tipping of materials is going to become a serious problem in the coming months and years.”

So what does Angus feel is the best avenue to go down in order to mitigate the size and frequency of any possible waste facility fires?

“In my opinion, the biggest contribution the government could make would be to standardise recycling collections across the UK. Educate the general public on what can and cannot be recycled and simplify the collection and recycling of all batteries. For me, waste streams contaminated with batteries are at considerable risk of unintended fires,” he said.

“Attempting to address all these issues at the waste management facilities is impracticable and if it could be achieved, would result in a massive investment in new technologies to identify and remove batteries. This is a cost that must ultimately be passed back to the consumer. Our continental cousins do not seem to have the same issues with household recycling, so perhaps we should be more Dutch. Realistically, even if the government prioritised the development of an indigenous recycling industry for these materials, we are years away from these facilities coming on stream.”

The responsibility for the betterment of our environments is one that is universally shared, and so the setbacks will be felt by all as well. Educating yourself on recycling and finding the effort to sort your recycling waste will have benefits felt way down the industry line, making recycling safer and more efficient for the professionals.