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.
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”.
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.