When I read about the reducing bin collection services offered by Councils up and down the country, I think that where I live we are lucky in the refuse collection service we enjoy. We have a weekly collection of the main rubbish bin, fortnightly collections of garden and glass/plastic/tin waste bins, and four-weekly collection of a paper and cardboard bin. My wife and I recycle extensively, and it is good to feel that we are doing our bit. But are we?

That’s a lot of bin lorries on the road a lot of the time – three in one day in some weeks – and (if you care about this sort of thing) none of them are electric. Then there’s the worry about what happens to all the stuff we’ve put in the recycling bins – does it really get recycled locally, or does it end up being transported to the other end of the country, or even to the far side of the world? And/or does it just go up in flames?

Recycling centre fires

That last troubling thought was triggered by my reading yet another online report of a fire at a recycling plant. This one was at Perth and we are told that it was a major fire which had burned all day. Six fire engines and two height appliances were called out to help tackle the blaze on Sunday, when plumes of smoke could be seen billowing across the city.

That fire came hard on the heels of another major recycling centre fire, this time in Stalybridge. News reports described it as a huge fire, sending smoke high into the sky over Greater Manchester, and residents were warned to keep windows and doors closed.

Not long before that, there was a major fire at a recycling centre at Brentford. Six fire engines and 40 firefighters were called to deal with that one.

Last month seven crews from Cornwall fire service were called to a blaze at a recycling centre in Launceston. They worked through the night to get the fire under control, the items on fire being described in a news report as “rubbish”.

Also last month a huge fire at a recycling centre in Waterston, Carmarthenshire required one hundred fire crew to deal with it. As so often, a large plume of thick black smoke was visible from miles away.

A few weeks earlier, firefighters were called to a major fire at a recycling centre at Bocking in Essex. On this occasion 600 tonnes of waste clothing were alight, and six crews called to deal with it had to work hard to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby woodland. Once more the fire generated a lot of smoke and the public was urged to keep doors and windows closed.

In June 2022, fire crews attended another recycling centre blaze at Linwood in Glasgow, where a huge plume of black smoke from “rubbish” polluted the neighbourhood. Six fire engines and a height appliance attended to bring the blaze under control.

In February this year there was a “large” blaze at a recycling centre in Ipswich. It took six fire appliances and their crews to bring the fire under control.

In August 2021 a “deep-seated” fire at a recycling centre in Fife took more than 24 hours to bring under control. It took so long because it had spread through flammable material.

In April 2021 in Wandsworth part of a mixed recycling bunker containing around 150 tonnes of rubbish was damaged by fire. Crews from Wandsworth, Fulham, Tooting and Battersea fire stations attended the scene.

In that same month a fire covering an area the size of a football pitch took place at a recycling centre in Bury. Its smoke plume drifted for miles around and led to the closure of a motorway junction.

In March 2021 a serious fire at a recycling centre at Wrekenton, near Gateshead caused concerns about the disposal of batteries. It followed hard on the heels of a similar fire at Middlefields recycling centre in North Tyneside just a week earlier, and another similar incident at a recycling centre at Hartlepool in August 2020.

Also in August 2020 there was a huge fire at a recycling centre in Barnsley. As so often, residents were warned to keep their windows and doors shut due to smoke from the fire.

The above reports were gleaned from a very quick and simple online search. The reality is that I could have listed dozens, even hundreds, just within the UK (as it is, I have listed fires in Scotland, Wales, the south of England, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the north east, and East Anglia). They are happening all over the UK, on a frequent basis. However, the problem isn’t limited to the UK – I could have included examples from as far away as Australia. So why have these fires suddenly started to be a problem? The answer is that they haven’t – this is a problem we’ve had for years, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

The troubling fire record of UK recycling plants

This is the heading to an article in the Guardian from July 2017. Even five years ago, this is what we were told:

There are more than 300 fires a year at UK waste and recycling plants. New guidance hopes to reduce this statistic

Fire crews were called out on Tuesday to extinguish a major fire at a waste plant in the West Midlands town of Oldbury. It’s very likely another recycling centre will be calling the fire services this month.

There were on average more than 300 fires per year at waste and recycling plants in the UK between 2001 and 2013. In May, 40 firefighters tackled a blaze that burned for two days at a recycling plant near Rotherham. The same month, 24 residents were evacuated from their homes in Manchester after computer parts went up in flames at a recycling plant in Swinton.

As well as representing an obvious danger to human life, these fires pose a major environmental hazard and impose a significant cost on business in property damage.
Most waste sites are “well run”, says Nicky Cunningham, deputy director for waste regulation at the Environment Agency, and awareness of fire risks is increasing. Yet the combustibility of the materials destined for recycling centres – paper, plastic, wood, cardboard and so on – means it’s impossible for waste businesses to take too many precautions…

…Lithium batteries are a particular concern, according to Stephen Freeland, policy manager at the Scottish Environmental Services Association. He says: “It’s been causing us no end of bother and it’s getting worse as these batteries are appearing in all sorts of electrical products.”
A potential solution is to place an electronic tag on batteries so that waste firms can detect them if they enter the conventional waste stream. The Environmental Services Association is currently lobbying battery manufacturers to introduce such technology, but without success so far.

Given those battery fires in Gateshead, Hartlepool and North Tyneside, we don’t seem to be any closer to solving the battery problem than we were five years ago.

Offshoring

Perhaps, then, the answer is to offshore our recycling problem (just as we have offshored our jobs and manufacturing capability along with greenhouse gas emissions)? Or perhaps not. A little under four years ago we learned that fraud was a problem so far as concerns recycling plastic waste abroad. As well as worries about fraud, there are environmental concerns too:

The growing market in Turkey is also raising fears that more UK plastic waste will leak into the oceans.

One source said: “The concern about Turkey is more whether material is being stored to be recycled later, or not recycled at all and being burnt.”

Another Guardian report went to the heart of the problem:

Since 2002, the amount of waste sent overseas to countries including China, Turkey, Malaysia and Poland has increased sixfold – accounting for half of the packaging reported as recycled last year.

But the NAO said: “We are concerned that the agency does not have strong enough controls to prevent the system subsidising exports of contaminated or poor-quality material.”

There was a risk that some material was not recycled to UK standards “and is instead sent to landfill or contributes to pollution”.

Conclusion

It seems that we lack the ability to recycle our domestic waste adequately here in the UK. When we try to do so via recycling centres, the result seems to be several toxic fires every week. When we send it abroad instead, fraud is an issue, and worryingly, from an environmental point of view, there seems to be a real risk that our waste simply ends up going to landfill or in the world’s oceans instead.

I hesitate to suggest it, but can we not instead devise a means to incinerate our own waste to generate energy in the midst of our ongoing energy crisis? Surely it isn’t beyond us to devise power plants burning rubbish that could be equipped with filters and scrubbers to clean the resulting emissions?

To take but one example at random from the internet, waste to energy (“WTE”) plants seem to be capable of achieving significant benefits:

US WTE plants produce about 14 million MWh of electricity per year, i.e. about 0.55 MWh per metric ton of MSW. Recent WTE plants are more energy efficient, for example the AEB Amsterdam WTE is reported to generate over 0.7 MWh per ton. On average, it can be assumed that new WTE facilities produce 0.6 MWh per ton. Therefore, a WTE facility that processes 300000 tons per year will generate 180000MWhe. If the plant is located within or near a city that has or wants to build a district heating system, the WTE can also provide another 180000MWhth of thermal energy, or more. This second advantage of WTE is utilized fully in Denmark, where 28 WTE plants serve a population of 5.5 million. These plants are nearly always located in or near residential areas and provide 30% of the district heating for the nation.

I hope that those in charge of the net zero project in the UK have not had their heads turned so far that they are ignoring the serious problems associated with recycling centre fires and a possible solution to our major waste problems.





19 Comments

  1. Worcestershire has an excellent recycling facility and an EFW plant, generating electricity. Prices for recyclables may sometimes be a problem, but the EFW plant is fine, with no local objections.
    Apart from that, ban exporting all waste – you may need a 3-year advanced warning, but plenty of time to build local plants and stop the dreadful waste pollution that can be traced back to the UK.

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  2. Dr P, thanks for the info about Worcester.

    John, thanks for the link. I suspected somebody would object to burning waste to generate energy – it’s far too sensible an answer to a real and pressing environmental problem. The thing is, they don’t seem to care about the environmental problem, nor do they have an answer to it. Apparently muttering “but climate change” is all that is required.

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  3. I think Ms Sturgeon once talked about rubbish burning power plants but since she made pals with the Greens all gone quiet .

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  4. I should have looked into energy from waste plants a little more before setting out to write. It seems there are a few (though nothing like so many as there are recycling centres). Curiously, a few seem to be operated by Veolia, the outfit that Lord Deben’s associated with. The only surprise, then, is that there aren’t more of them!

    Given his combined roles with Veolia and the CCC, perhaps someone should draw to Lord Deben’s attention the report mentioned by John Ridgway above. As I hope I made clear, I think these facilities are a good solution to a pressing problem. Funny – not – that the CCC doesn’t seem to have an issue with them!

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  5. The article referenced by John Ridgway takes a very narrow view of Energy from Waste – incineration. It quite correctly indicates that incineration will produce more CO2 than other renewable methods of electricity generation. That is not the point – which is, what you do with waste? Certainly, reduce it; certainly, recycle what you can; certainly, reuse some materials; probably put food waste into AD plants. But there will still be a need to incinerate some waste and landfill is not the answer. All organic matter will rot down and produce CO2. Charges in the UK are about £86/t for untreated waste, but £2.50/t for bottom ash from incineration. One has to be realistic and accept that incineration has a place and is a good way of treating some elements of the waste we produce!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post Mark. It made me think of this old EconTalk interview with Michael Munger. At about 28 minutes in he makes a prediction — from the transcript:

    Munger’s prediction: Large plastic strip mining operations for the petroleum. Not worth it now, but in 100 years? We’re close to the point now that the oil in the non-biodegradable plastic could be burned for fuel, useful. Scrubbers.

    https://www.econlib.org/econtalk-by-featured-guest-and-letter/?selected_letter=M#MichaelMunger

    Like

  7. “NGO retracts ‘waste colonialism’ report blaming Asian countries for plastic pollution
    Ocean Conservancy apologises for ‘false narrative’ of 2015 study that put blame for bulk of world’s plastic waste on five Asian states”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/15/ocean-conservancy-ngo-retracts-2015-waste-colonialism-report-blaming-five-asian-countries-for-most-plastic-pollution

    An environmental watchdog has retracted an influential report that blamed five Asian countries for the majority of plastic pollution in the ocean.

    The report, Stemming the Tide, from the US-based environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, also included incineration and waste-to-energy as “solutions” to the plastics crisis. Published in 2015, it was decried as “waste colonialism” by hundreds of environmental, health and social justice groups across Asia.

    The watchdog has now publicly apologised for unfairly “creating a narrative” about who is responsible for producing plastic waste and removed the report from its website. Its apology was welcomed on Wednesday as “long overdue” by Gaia, an alliance of 800 waste-reduction groups in 90 countries, and by Break Free From Plastic, a global movement of more than 2,000 organisations.

    The report had caused years of harm, the groups said, by ignoring the role of countries in the global north for overproduction of plastic and for exporting plastic waste to developing countries in the guise of trade….

    Yet:

    The report not only “wrongly blamed” five countries – the Philippines, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand – for the bulk of plastic pollution, but “misled, for years, governments and the public into thinking that burning plastic waste was a solution to the problem”, Grate said….

    …In the Philippines, a national ban on incineration is threatened by new proposals to allow waste-to-energy plants, while in Indonesia, the government continues to push for waste incineration despite a supreme court ruling revoking presidential regulations to speed up the development of waste-based power plants or incinerators…

    …Other research, which Ocean Conservancy is now promoting, recommends interventions to reduce, reuse and better manage plastic across all economies.

    Fine sentiments, perhaps, but not really a solution. Especially when attempts to “reuse and better manage” plastic (and other) waste sees (or, at least, saw) 300 fires a year at recycling centres across the UK. If it’s going to burn anyway, it seems to me that it might as well be used to generate energy.

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  8. But, but…

    Plenty of scope for extracting rents from “interventions to reduce, reuse and better manage plastic across all economies.”

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  9. “Essex waste incinerator ‘better for climate than landfill'”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-63006749

    A new £600m incinerator will be better for the environment than sending waste to landfill, the company building it has claimed, as construction continues.

    The plant at Rivenhall, near Braintree, Essex, will generate electricity by burning unrecyclable waste from 2025.

    Campaigners are concerned about air pollution and reducing recycling rates.

    “Residual waste is being landfilled, which is the worst thing you can do from a climate change perspective,” said John Ahern of waste firm Indaver.

    “Incineration is an improvement.”

    He said about half of the cost of the waste-to-energy project, at a former airbase, went into gas-cleaning technology and environmental control.

    “We can’t just burn things, we’re not allowed to pollute,” he told BBC Essex.

    “[Society] produces too much waste [worldwide], and the UK is not self-sufficient in generating its own electricity – we’re relying on fossil fuels.

    “In the long term we do need to look at the waste we generate, we need to get better.

    “We are solving a problem that is there now.”…

    I’m inclined to agree, but inevitably, not everybody does:

    James Abbot, a Green district councillor representing wards near the site, described what Mr Ahern had said as “green wash”.

    He added the site would produce 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, making it the biggest single producer of CO2 in Essex.

    “It will have a massive negative impact on climate change,” he said.

    Like

  10. “A fire broke out at Tesla Gigafactory Berlin; locals call for production stop”

    https://electrek.co/2022/09/26/fire-tesla-gigafactory-berlin-locals-call-production-stop/

    A fire broke out at Tesla Gigafactory Berlin’s recycling plant in the early hours of the morning, and now a local group that has been fighting the project is using the fire to call for stopping production.

    In the early hours of the morning, Tesla’s own fire brigade at Gigafactory Berlin called the local fire department of the municipality of Grünheide, where the factory is located, for help.

    According to a report from Märkische Oderzeitung, a local newspaper, a large pile of cardboard and wood caught on fire at the recycling facility located at the factory (translated from German):

    A fire broke out on Monday night on the premises of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide. The fire brigades of the municipality of Grünheide were called at 3.33 a.m. by the Tesla plant fire brigade. A pile of cardboard is said to have burned on the site. According to information from the Oderland regional office, several fire brigades from the municipality of Grünheide and the turntable ladder from Erkner were used.

    Eight hundred cubic meters of paper, cardboard, and wood reportedly caught on fire – resulting in significant flames being spotted at the factory.

    It reportedly took hours and 50 firefighters, including 12 from Tesla’s own brigade, to get the fire under control this morning:

    Like

  11. “Bristol residents urged to recycle batteries safely”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-63270050

    Residents in Bristol are being urged to recycle batteries and gas cannisters safely after a number of fires at recycling centres.

    Bristol Waste said seven blazes were caused by flammable items being put in the wrong box or in general waste.

    It is asking people to take care when recycling items with ‘hidden’ batteries like e-cigarettes.

    “It could be really dangerous both for our crews or for people on the street,” said Emma Russell from Bristol Waste….

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  12. so they can’t recycle “hidden” batteries safely?

    if they think most people will think twice about binning old lece toothbrush etc, they have no idea.
    I tried to take my lece toothbrush apart thinking I could just replace the battery. had to wreck it, then found it was soldered anyway, so no chance. so in the bin it went.

    ps – it had to be Bristol, the MSM centre for mad idea’s..

    Like

  13. These fires just keep on coming:

    “Llanelli: Recycling centre fire under control”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-63257811

    A blaze at a recycling centre has been brought under control by firefighters.

    They were called on Friday at about 10:35 BST to the site in Bynea, near Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, where a large amount of waste caught alight.

    Crews from Llanelli, Gorseinon, Tumble, Swansea West, Ammanford, Swansea Central and Pontarddulais attended. Residents were told to close doors and windows….

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  14. Here’s yet another one, though this one is very much small-scale:

    Backwell recycling centre skip blaze tackled by fire crews

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-63302069

    Firefighters have tackled a fire that broke out at a recycling centre in Backwell.

    Four fire crews were sent to the site site in Coles Quarry, Church Town, at around 10:15 BST where they found a skip “well alight”.

    Two water jets and a high-pressure hose reel were used to tackle the blaze, Avon Fire and Rescue Service said.

    A spokeswoman for the service confirmed at 13:45 BST that the fire had been “safely extinguished”.

    The recycling centre is currently closed.

    Perhaps I’ll leave it there. If I link to every ongoing recycling centre fire, I’ll be very busy.

    Like

  15. “Almost 10,000 tonnes of Worcestershire’s recycling rejected”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hereford-worcester-63504422

    Almost 10,000 tonnes of waste earmarked for recycling in Worcestershire was rejected last year and sent to landfill instead.

    The county council said clothes, shoes and food waste were the items most commonly placed in the wrong bin.

    In 2020/21, 122,000 tonnes of rubbish was sent for recycling in the county, making up 44% of the waste collected.

    It sounds as though it’s time to send it all to be burned to produce energy.

    Like

  16. “South Yorkshire village endures seventh week of toxic smoke from industrial fire
    Waste stored in Kiveton Park building caught fire in September and is proving difficult to extinguish”

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/nov/11/kiveton-toxic-smoke-industrial-blaze

    Residents of a South Yorkshire village have been left worried for their safety after spending seven weeks engulfed by toxic smoke from an industrial blaze that fire services are struggling to put out.

    People who live and work in Kiveton Park, near Rotherham, have been told to stay indoors and keep their windows closed to avoid inhaling acrid, plasticky smoke being emitted from a building storing waste that caught fire on 21 September.

    Substances present in smoke can irritate the lining of the air passages, the skin and the eyes, they have been warned – a feeling they have become all too familiar with.

    Fire services and the Environment Agency have managed to extinguish about two-thirds of the blaze in the large warehouse filled with what they described as “domestic type waste”, made up of plastic, paper and cardboard.

    But it is proving a challenge as deep-seated pockets are constantly reigniting with the burnt plastic and paper forming a “crust” that blocks firefighting water from reaching parts that are still smouldering, the Environment Agency said.

    For many people, worries about the smoke, which can still be seen rising in thick plumes from the skeleton of the building, began after a couple of weeks and the lack of progress and support is causing tensions.

    Like

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