Reducing the risk of waste fires

Waste fires continue to be a problem at recycling facilities across Australia, but is there a solution to reducing the hazard?

In July of this year, plumes of smoke and ash loomed over the Melbourne CBD, as a fire tore its way through a recycling plant in Melbourne’s north.

The fire, which burned for 11 days, forced hundreds of residents to evacuate and prompted a state government taskforce to take action.

The taskforce plans to audit recycling facilities across Victoria and consult with the industry. The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC), which represents major industry organisations, now wants a clear set of guidelines established for the EPA and local government. The taskforce will run for at least 12 months. The NWRIC has suggested a similar model to the Heads of EPA (which represents state EPAs) to a structure used in the United Kingdom, which stipulates the width and height of stockpile rows – a key contributor to fires at recycling facilities. An EPA Victoria spokesperson says that as the amount of recyclable materials at a facility can fluctuate weekly, the taskforce will continue to watch these sites closely. The spokesperson says inspections are not one-offs and sites can expect to be monitored closely.

As further investigation could be imminent, one research report released last year by the University of Sydney, titled Waste Fires in Australia: Cause for Concern?, describes the issue of waste fires as “poorly understood”. The report into the causes of waste fires in NSW finds that for a majority of cases, the causes were unknown. The next biggest cause is said to be arson, followed by spontaneous combustion and the dumping of hot coal/ash. The source of combustible material includes used oils, tyres, batteries, green waste, wood waste, solvents and municipal solid waste.

While the ultimate cause of many fires remains ambiguous, the industry council notes that stockpiling is a major issue.

“The key point within the UK guidelines is that no stockpile on any given site should be greater than that which would burn for 24 hours. Right now, we’re not sure that is the case in some facilities around Australia,” says Max Spedding, the NWRIC’s Chief Executive Officer.

Max notes that most of the recycling infrastructure in place was built 20 years ago.

As plant owners renovate their facilities, they lose production time, which increases the risk of fire.

In July, the council released its industry roadmap, taking a national position on stockpiling. The document calls for upfront landfill levy liabilities and for governments and the environmental regulator to discourage long-term stockpiling. Max adds that another related issue is that infrastructure planning is crucial to fire prevention, and that recycling facilities should have a backup should any facilities go down.

“If you’ve got four facilities and one goes down – you’ve lost 20 per cent of production. When you’re processing up to a million tonnes a year, it can pile up pretty quickly,” Max says.

“Fire insurance is getting very expensive so we need to take measures to protect both the community and the industry’s bottom line.”

Arthur J. Gallagher provides waste management insurance for members of the Waste Management Association of Australia, the Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association and the industry as a whole. Russell Boucher, Principal Broker at the company, says premiums are increasing as more claims are cropping up, and more insurance companies are underwriting and reclassifying their assets as a result.

“There are also other contributing factors in the mix, such as reinsurers demanding increased rates and a prevailing market where there are fewer specialist underwriters prepared to write policy wordings for the waste management industry,” Russell explains.

Russell says that stockpiling occurs when there is an interruption in the production line and the pick up of waste. While most facilities have robust fire prevention management processes, an inherent risk of fire will always remain. Fire-fighting equipment, sprinkler systems, spark arrestors on plants and machinery, and staff regularly trained in fire management are just a few considerations the company assesses for premiums. It also looks at the type of material being recycled, the location of the business and the construction, type and age of the plant and machinery.

“Premiums depend on a number of variables, including a company’s risk management program and prior claims history,” Russell says.

“Broadly speaking, the recycling and overall waste industry is currently paying premium rates which are at the higher end of the industry classification.”

Industry professionals such as Grant Musgrove, the Chief Executive of the not-for-profit group the Australian Council of Recycling, says that the recent Coolaroo fire will prompt tighter regulations by the state government and EPA. Grant says fires caused by stockpiling are further at risk during times where recycling commodity prices are low.

According to the Victorian State Government’s page on waste stockpiles, waste intended for reuse of recycling might be stored while commodity prices are low, until the value of the recovered materials rises. Commodities such as metal, steel or plastics are all affected by federal and state government policies and international developments in overseas countries such as China.Grant says an oversupply of overseas imports over the last few years has led to a slump in commodity prices, which leads to stockpiling by recyclers until prices return to normality. Over the past three years, the price of plastic, as an example, has gone from $200 a tonne to $10-20.

“These waste fires not only bring devastation to the community, but to the waste industry through reduced downtime and a lost commodity value. We’ve got to find a pathway towards more legislation and enforcement and that means the Victorian Government needs to take action and use some of the money from its landfill levy fund to better enforce stockpiling,” Grant says.

“The government has been caught napping on this. Other states such as South Australia and New South Wales have much tighter and agile responses to stockpiles.”

In NSW, an additional waste levy is incurred when waste is stockpiled at a facility for more than 12 months or above lawful limits.

Read the full story on page 62 of Issue 14.