An accessible, industry specific guidance document on fire risk control at waste management sites is expected soon. Geoff Smallwood explains why it is badly needed, given potential risks arising from sustainably managed waste.

AS WE recycle and recover more of our waste, rather than simply disposing of it, the risk of fires occurring at waste management sites is potentially higher. This does not mean that we should stop recycling and recovering our wastes, or slow society’s move towards more sustainable waste management, but without doubt recycling and recovering wastes can pose higher potential fire risks than traditional disposal methods such as landfill.

Unlike most forms of disposal, recycling and recovering wastes typically involve using complex machinery, which can pose an ignition risk to the wastes being treated, through heat, electrical faults and other sources. Recycled and recovered waste products need to be placed to market and, unlike with disposal, this could result in them being stored in greater volumes and for longer periods of time. If a fire occurs, the amount of waste/fuel available is likely to be higher and self combustion for longer-term storage of some waste products may be an issue. If we are making a waste-derived fuel for use in electricity production or for an industrial use, we will deliberately reduce the waste’s particle size
and dry it to enhance calorific value; and in the process it is made more combustible and easier to set alight.

The examples mentioned are, to one extent or another, within the control of the waste management site operator, although some are a function of making a waste product suitable and attractive to its market. In addition, there are also fire risks associated with recycling and recovery that are not completely within the ability of a waste management operator to address.

Wilful acts and omissions

Arson, vandalism and other external ignition sources have been implicated in several fires at external recycled and recovered waste product stockyards. Operators put in place security arrangements, but these cannot always stop the determined person and there is evidence that the incidence of such fires may rise during school holidays and breaks. Arson is, for example, less of an issue at a landfill site.

Hot or hazardous items placed in waste input streams are a running problem for waste management operators. These may include the carelessly discarded disposable barbeque set that has been folded up and placed in the bin before it has stopped smouldering – ready to burst into flame in a shredder at a waste plant. Or, it could be a wilfully discarded car battery or gas cylinder that should have been taken to the ‘local dump’, but where the householder could not be bothered. Such items may remain undiscovered in waste until it is too late – leaving the waste operator with only the choice of seeking to extinguish the resultant fire before it can spread.

Acts and omissions such as the above by members of the public or trade waste customers have been a problem for waste management operators for years. However, the impact on a large landfill site may be far less than if the waste is sent to a recycling or recovery plant for processing.

In practice, the number of fires at waste management sites has been declining in recent years, albeit slowly, and there are signs that waste management operators are upping their game when it comes to fire control. However, there are still too many fires at UK waste sites and the industry needs to improve its record further.

Guidance falls short

One of the blocks to improvement is a lack of waste management industry specific fire guidance. General fire guidance and assessment is useful and some of the various technical standards developed by the insurance world include issues specific to waste management. However, there is no over-arching waste management guidance to assist operators in deciding what controls they should have in place.

For example, using general guidance to decide on fire escape provision is fine, but what firefighting equipment would be suitable for a near-infrared optical sorting device used in a recycling plant? Using technical guidance documents to decide on the fire resistance of the walls of a control room at a waste processing plant makes sense, but what extinguishing systems would be best at a mechanical biological treatment plant producing waste derived fuels for industrial use? How far apart should bales of waste derived fuel stacks be placed to avoid fire spread? What are the most effective options for firefighting equipment in the waste reception section of a recycling plant, and which fire detection devices work best at waste management sites?

This is not to say that there is no guidance available, or that the waste management industry has stood still and done nothing. Technical information is available for some specific sectors of the waste management industry; typically where fires have been a particular problem. For example, research on the combustion and other properties of shredded tyres is available. And, some sectors are developing their own specific guidance, such as the Wood Recycling Association. In addition, many of the larger players in the waste management industry have developed their own in-house fire control standards, based on experience of what works and what does not.

Waste industry diversity

However, one of the problems with achieving an adequate and consistent standard of fire control at UK waste management sites is the industry’s structure. The UK waste management industry is diverse and diffuse with the larger companies representing less than 40% of the industry. The remainder consists of hundreds of smaller players whose ability to formulate their own fire control standards is limited. In addition to the diversity of smaller players such as these, access to highly technical standards or simply knowing what is available can be a problem.

Ideally, what is required is the presentation of basic guidance, combining in an easily accessible document the experience of the larger companies with an overview of what technical and other information is available and where it can be found. Waste management operators could use this as a starting point when they are considering fire risk at their sites, and it would be backed by an acknowledged and authoritative body.

Cross-industry moves

In the summer of 2013, a series of high-profile fires occurred at waste management sites, attracting much media attention. While the number of waste site fires is on the decline, these high-profile events provided a distinct incentive to address the issue. As a result, the Environment Agency (the main environmental regulator for waste management operations in England and Wales) produced a technical guidance note on waste management site fires and their control (technical guidance note 7 or TGN7).

This technical guidance note was the first over-arching item of industry specific information for waste management operators on fire risk and control ever produced in the UK. To refine this guidance, in late 2013 a cross-industry symposium was established to consider fire risk at waste management sites.

This symposium consists of representatives from the larger waste management companies, the Environment Agency and the Chief Fire Officers Association. Supporting the symposium, work is also being undertaken by the Health and Safety Laboratories, in particular to define and capture available information, research
and data on fire risks specific to waste management.

Within this symposium, a work group has been established to revise TGN7 and add to it, the aim being to produce the basic fire control guidance that the waste management industry needs. This new guidance will not replace any sector specific documents, nor will it remove the need for waste management operators to access technical guidance. What it will do is provide an over-arching document that includes the experience of larger waste management companies; acts as a starting point for operators when considering their fire risk; and provides signposting to where further information can be found.

Draft consultation

A first draft of the new guidance is currently out for consultation with working group members. Wide consultation across the industry will follow, with the aim of the final document being released this April.

To give the guidance credibility, it is hoped that the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH) will endorse the document. WISH has been in existence for more than ten years and is the waste industry’s acknowledged source of formal guidance.

New guidance on its own will not stop fires at waste management sites but, for the first time, waste management operators will have a single, easily accessible document on which to base their fire control provisions; a document that is specific to their own industry and which can be used as the basis for more detailed and technical assessments.

The waste management industry in the UK has made great strides over the past decade in supporting society’s move towards more sustainable ways of managing its waste. While in 2000, less than 10% of household waste was recycled, today we see more than 40% recycled. In helping to provide environmental improvement, the risk of fires at waste management sites may have inadvertently risen, but the production of this new guidance is one indication that the industry is seeking to reverse this trend

Geoff Smallwood is director of corporate responsibility and risk manager at Shanks Group.


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