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Fire at MRFs: North America sets new record

A total of 367 fires occurred at waste and recycling facilities in the US and Canada in 2021. These resulted in two deaths and 37 direct and indirect injuries, according to Ryan Fogelman of tech company Fire Rover.

There was a peak in fires in the months of April and May, in which roughly 45 fires were reported. The fires ranged from small incidents to complete burnouts and occurred in all types of operations handling a variety of waste streams, including; metals, rubber, paper, construction and demolition (C&D) material, and plastics.

‘The Fire Rover team was responsible for more than 1000 saves at our 300- plus client operations. We have never had a catastrophic incident that began in an area protected by our fire suppression system,’ Fogelman says. ‘Are we perfect? No, but we have successfully fought any major incident that we faced with minimal damage to any of our clients’ facilities.’

And yet, he laments that despite Fire Rover’s best efforts 2021 set a new record in terms of officially reported fires in the waste management and recycling sector since he began consolidating the data in 2016. ‘We even beat 2018. Until this year, I incorrectly thought that (365 incidents) was our high-water line,’ Fogelman asserts.

The picture is more bleak when taking into account the fires that went unreported, either because they were relatively small, did little damage, or because they were contained before getting out of control. Updated data shows there were 593 fire incidents in 2018, for example. The figure went up the following year, with 714 known incidents taking place in North America. A stark contrast with the 345 incidents reported.

Fogelman says he wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘real’ figures were six times higher than those documented. He predicts businesses will face even more fires in the near future. While the number of major fires will remain somewhat stable, it’s likely the number of small fire incidents will notably increase, surpassing even 1800 incidents. The safety expert cites the presence of batteries in personal electronics and data storage equipment as a catalyst for trouble.

And he adds: ‘Maybe 2021’s high number of reported incidents was due to 2020’s pullback we assigned blame to COVID issues. The assumption is that the waste and recycling tonnage slowed down in 2020 and was pushed into 2021.’

While the economy was gearing back up, the waste and recycling industry were dealing with heavy staffing issues, social distancing requirements and more. ‘These issues primarily affect the pre-sort and sorting operations at MRFs,’ Fogelman tells Recycling International. ‘Less sorting means more chances of hazards sneaking through into the processing and causing potential fire hazards.’ 

Only time will tell what lies in store for the industry this year. ‘As we head into 2022, we are installing more of our systems each month, not only in the US and Canada, but also in Australia, the UK and France,’ Fogelman says. ‘I’m glad our solutions are helping to fight this global problem and changing the way we think about fighting fires.’

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