Tackling waste fires

Mark Tansey of FireVu gives his views on why and how the industry can move forward to reduce the 'unacceptable' regularity of waste management fires.  

The recent fire at the Tradpak Recycling facility required more than 100 firefighters, 15 fire engines, two hydraulic platforms and a specialist high-volume pumping appliance.

The blaze, which took hold on 21 April, still had firefighters present three days later to fully extinguish the fire (however, this is a relatively short-lived blaze, as some can last weeks).

Looking forward, the clean-up costs will be high: the cost of extinguishing the fire alone could easily run into hundreds of thousands of pounds; and hundreds of fish in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal have been killed by pollution run-off from the fire (the Environment Agency has already started to address the disaster, with a clean-up and the transfer of surviving stocks into the adjacent River Aire).

But, it could have been worse: fire services prevented the fire from reaching neighbouring property and toxin-releasing chemicals on site, and, as far as initial reports can determine, have not caused serious health issues as yet. 

Tradpak Fire is not an isolated incident

However, the Tradpak Fire is not an isolated incident. On average there is a fire everyday at a recycling or waste management facility in the UK according to Environment Agency figures, which have remained more or less constant for the past 10 years.

The reaction, often repeated on social media, of  “another day, another waste management fire” has an air of resigned desperation and frustration.

Indeed, the scale of fire incidents and the media profile they generate has undoubtedly increased.   

But the cost is now being felt by waste management industry as it goes beyond lost materials and business disruption, and the burden is in part being transferred to them. Insurance premiums are rocketing as more suppliers decide that there is better and less risky business elsewhere. 

New sentencing guidelines coming in 1 July are punitive for waste management companies that are proved to have negligently polluted the environment owing to fire. Firms with turnovers of less than £10 million could potentially face fines as great as £400,000, while large firms could find themselves at the end of a £3 million penalty.

The recent case of a director of a recycling firm receiving a custodial sentence also shows there is a shift in putting the onus for waste fires onto owners.

Is enough being done?

The question facing the industry is: ‘Is enough being done?’ But, the answer is still no.  The situation has not noticeably improved. The changes described above fail to resolve the key change that will reduce waste management fires: legislation.

EA Guidelines that identify a range of measures that operators of waste storage sites should implement to minimise the risk of fire neglect fire detection and prevention. This is the essential step in resolving the situation.

For waste management sites the only mandatory guidelines are fire extinguishers and regular checks. It is a stretch to think that a fire of the magnitude of the one at Tradpak would have been spotted earlier, stalled (for the arrival of the fire services) or extinguished with the above provisions.

Recently, the Fire Futures Forum initiative took place. Insurers, fire services, waste management companies were all represented. It perhaps predictably opted for self-regulation as a way to tackle the issue. Fire prevention and detection was mentioned fleetingly just once in the report.

Well, self-regulation has not worked to date and I could trot out the line about doing the same things and getting the same results that don't work. Until legislation that gets to the heart of the matter is enacted, Resource and other industry media will have depressingly regular waste management fire stories.

The fire detection and prevention technology is there

But, proven fire detection and prevention technology is available, tested in demanding industries such as manufacturing and petrochemicals.

Infrared detectors (IR), Aspirating Smoke Detectors (ASD) and Visual Smoke Detection (VSD) offer a range of sophisticated solutions to dealing with potential fire risk early.  Each offers their own strengths for waste management sites such as VSD being equally suited indoor and outdoor and to large dirty areas.  

Fire suppression in the form of sprinklers, water sprays, water curtains and fixed monitors can help contain fires until more substantial help arrives.

What is more, if there is an adoption of taking more steps than the strict minimum asks, it could provide protection from the new Sentencing Guidelines and perhaps lower insurance premiums amongst other benefits.

In conclusion, there needs to be real self-regulation, greater use of fire prevention and detection technology or and stronger guidelines. If neither is pursued seriously the situation will continue. If action is taken it will protect local communities, the industry and waste management firms themselves.


Mark Tansey, of fire detection supplier FireVu that specialises in the waste management sector, has worked for 30 years in the fire industry. 

Read more about FireVu.