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The biggest problem at waste and recycling facilities is not what to do with the waste itself, it is the possibility of fire, finds the 4th Annual Reported Waste & Recycling Fires U.S./Canada” report compiled by Fire Rover.

The company’s research found 317 waste and recycling fires occurred in 2020. The breakdown of fires by materials they processed was:

  • 158 in waste, paper and plastic processing plants
  • 108 in scrap metal processing facilities
  • 20 in organics processing operations
  • 12 in e-scrap processing plants
  • 8 in C&D processing facilities
  • 7 in rubber processing operations
  • 4 in chemical processing plants

Further, Red Rover’s study reveals these fires led to 23 reported injuries and three deaths in 2020.

“Downtime due to fire and extinguishing a fire challenges fire departments and the staff manning these facilities. The incidents are frequent, dangerous, and can cause great disruption and loss,” says Andrew Guarino, chief executive officer and business strategist at AG Consulting.


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Dirty Places

Red Rover reports the top causes of these fires as combustibles such as aerosols, chemicals and butane cans, and lithium-ion batteries. But recycling facilities handle many other materials, which all react differently to fire and require different responses. Sparks coming from building and equipment maintenance also present fire risk.

Guarino, who has a long history of fire prevention, having operated a fire alarm and fire protection business for over 25 years, describes recycling environments, especially cardboard recycling operations, as “very caustic.”  

“In these facilities you have temperatures that are in the low 100s with lots of steam,” he says. “Chemicals and dust get on and in everything. The most likely area for a fire is where they dump the materials. The machines themselves are huge and they can cause a fire. And then obviously there are incendiary events, such as if someone throwing a cigarette, that can cause a fire.”

He adds, “Recycling plants are extremely dirty environments. Moving recyclables poses a risk. Heavy machinery can overheat and catch fire. The larger machines may have chemical extinguishment features, but most do not.”

In these high-risk environments, Guarino says it’s imperative for operators to keep fire safety top of mind and design buildings out of fire-retardant materials with fire protection that includes sprinkler, extinguisher and detection systems.

“There are two aspects to consider: the design and building of these facilities and retrofitting existing facilities,” he says. “In the first case, it’s a matter of designing the systems in an integrated fashion and accounting for ambient conditions such as severe humidity and high heat.”

Unfortunately, all too often, Guarino sees companies use fire protection technologies never designed for such polluted and active environments. “Companies must hire experienced fire protection engineers to design fire protection systems according to plant operations and associated challenges,” he says.

Steps to Better Fire Protection

The most important aspect of fire protection at waste and recycling facilities occurs in the design phase, according to Guarino.

For instance, he says, all fire detection devices must be weatherproof and inside an enclosure. The devices also must be fully adjustable for a range of ambient conditions. And companies must install the devices high enough to avoid damages from recycling machinery.

In these harsh environments, “smoke detectors get clogged constantly and you’ll get trouble signals because there is so much particulate in the air that the systems become overwhelmed,” he says. “You need smoke detection systems that can compensate for these conditions, detect the difference between dust particulate and smoke, and are robust and compartmentalized.”

He recommends installing rate of rise thermal detectors, which trigger an alarm when the rate of temperature increase in the surroundings exceeds a predetermined rate. These detectors measure the rate that air temperature changes during a fire event to deliver a faster alarm response than when detectors just measure temperature levels.

Rate of rise systems work better than fixed temperature detectors, according to Guarino. “With a fixed temp detector, by the time the temperature reaches 180 or 200 degrees, you’ve already got a fire,” he says.

Guarino also differentiates between ionization and photoelectronic smoke detectors.

An ionization smoke detector uses ionized particles to detect smoke. When smoke gets into these detectors, it disrupts the current and triggers an alarm. Ionization smoke detectors work best with fires with aggressive, open flames. They are less effective with other types of fires, for example, smoldering fires.

Photoelectric detectors, in contrast, use a light source and a light sensor to detect smoke. Once smoke enters the detection chamber, the smoke particles block the light beam and partially reflect light onto the sensors. This trips the alarm. These systems detect fires earlier than ionization alarms, he says.

“An ionization detector looks for a flash while a photoelectric detector looks for particles,” he explains. “You want to combine ionization with photoelectric detectors in a recycling facility. There are devices that have both technologies built into them.”

Guarino recommends setting alarms to the highest degree of obscuration allowed by the National Fire Protection Association to avoid false alarms from the extreme amounts of particulate in the air. He also recommends increasing the frequency of cleaning and testing detection devices to prevent false alarms.

Sprinkler Systems

Sprinkler system design and construction are a critical part of fire suppression in every industrial facility. But never more so than in recycling facilities where varied materials and volatile environments persist.

Recyclers must choose between a mist sprinkler system or a water-based system. One system sprays a watery mist to douse a fire, the other disperses many gallons of water per minute from sprinkler heads.

“The most effective system and the least costly is a water-based system,” Guarino says. “But you must consider the electrical equipment below that could get damaged by water. It may make more sense to put in a mist system.”

Sprinkler systems come equipped with detection technology to ensure they go off when needed. Guarino advises using rate of rise detection with these systems as well.

Recycling facilities also may require fire pumps if city-provided water does not support the system or to suppress the facility’s fire load. These locations may even need fire towers if city water isn’t available or does not support suppression.

Extinguishers and Hoses

Fire extinguishers are a tried-and-true method for combatting recycling fires, adds Guarino.

“Install at least the minimum of required fire extinguishers in these facilities,” he says. “So, if the fire is localized, you can use a fire extinguisher.”

Installing a fire hose and training internal teams to use it also can help. But Guarino advises avoiding the use of fire suppression foams containing Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Recycling facilities, he says, should relay on fluorine-free foams if foams are to be used.

Know Your Risk

An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure against recycling facility fires. Fire risk assessments are an essential part of putting proper protection strategies in place.

A risk assessment will show when fire suppression efforts are sufficient and when things need updating. These assessments also ensure facilities meet local fire code requirements.

Partnering with local fire officials to preplan response also matters. Quarterly and yearly walk throughs help preplan responses and tabletop response exercises also can determine response. Officials also can evaluate the effectiveness of companies’ fire prevention programs and recommend improvements when needed.