It seems as though the waste and recycling press has been full of stories about fires at recycling facilities this summer. Some have been big enough even to make national news. Earlier in August, 60 firefighters were called in to battle a blaze involving piles of segregated packaging waste materials in Wolverhampton. The next day, fire struck a site in Birmingham and that engulfed 500 tonnes of paper and plastics destined for recycling. These are not standalone cases: there have been similar inflammatory incidents this summer in Burnley, Leeds and Worksop. A site in Kidderminster has had two large fires in the last year. MRW has researched the issue and mapped 59 recycling fires that took place in 2012, although insurers have indicated that the true number is rather higher.
Cause and eff it
Wherever flammable waste materials are stored there’s a risk of fire. Whether it’s tyres, scrap vehicles or piles of baled and shredded residual waste, tight controls are needed to manage the risks, which is one of the reasons why sites operating without a permit are so problematic.
For most operators, in most cases, a fire will rank somewhere on the scale between operational inconvenience and commercial disaster. Damage to buildings, equipment, and the losses incurred on stocks of good quality, high value recycling may barely be covered by an insurance pay-out. Indeed, the increase in the perceived risk of fire at recycling sites is making insurance increasingly difficult and costly to obtain, harming operators’ business cases and leading some to operate uninsured – insurance not being a pre-requisite of obtaining an environmental permit.
New, inexperienced operators, a dry summer, larger inventories due to the adverse market conditions, spontaneous combustion and even an increase in the popularity of Chinese lanterns may also be factors. But no consistent cause seems to have been found.
Whilst some fires have been attributed to arson attacks by vandals, I suspect arson might also be a factor in other cases where the business involved is struggling.
The increase in fires coincides with a slump in recyclate prices to the lowest levels seen since 2005 and the introduction of the Chinese Government’s Green Fence. The UK, which once relied heavily on the export of waste to the Far East, is now struggling with an excess of low-grade recyclable materials with limited markets. In a falling market, the insured value of a stockpile of waste or recycling may be greater than the likely value of the material on the open market. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that in some such cases, struggling owner-operators might be tempted to ‘do an insurance-job’.
For residual waste or shredded and baled low-grade ‘RDF’, disposal costs have increased in line with landfill tax and as the very low prices that were available for the Dutch treatment of RDF have been snapped up. As disposal costs increase, so too will the incentive to get rid of the waste illegally. Whilst many legitimate businesses are struggling to make ends meet, others may be tempted to reduce their costs by avoiding their legal obligations. Waste crime has always been a problem but now it seems the collection, baling and tipping of waste illegally is on the rise. Some businesses are going under leaving piles of waste behind.
Perhaps waste isn’t only being tipped illegally but is also being burned illegally – at massive public cost and inconvenience.
The data on waste and recycling plant fires isn’t sufficiently detailed to be able to draw firm conclusions. Even during a period when they appear to be occurring at a rate of one a week or more, the total number of fires remains relatively small. The many variables associated with their incidence masks any impact from deliberate fire setting in response to material or disposal prices (a wet summer in 2012 may, for example, have played a role in a decline in fires last year).
But there is at least some circumstantial evidence to suggest that there may be dubious behaviour. Material Recycling Facility and Waste Transfer Station operators have told us that their insurance brokers have quoted fear of arson as a reason behind premium rises.
For legitimate waste and recycling businesses it’s critical that facilities have the best possible fire precautions in place. Hopefully they will find the Environment Agency’s recent guide to fire prevention for waste facilities useful. But my guess is that high disposal costs and low recycling prices mean that we’re going to continue to hear about waste facility fires in the months ahead.
Where waste is collected and tipped illegally, legitimate operators are at an obvious competitive disadvantage. If arson is causing an increase in insurance premiums, or making it impossible in some cases to get proper insurance cover, then reputable and honest waste businesses are further disadvantaged by the actions of the irresponsible and fraudulent. It’s no wonder the industry, regulators and those who care about good environmental management want to see a crack-down on waste crime.