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Q&A: Ryan Fogelman the li-ion tamer putting out battery fires

The USA and Canada suffered 317 fires at waste & recycling operation in 2020. ‘These are just the officially reported cases,’ says battery safety expert Ryan Fogelman.

‘Based on my understanding, half or more of these fires were caused by batteries and the rest were caused by traditional hazards like propane tanks, chemicals, aerosols etc.’

His company Fire Rover has installed patented technology at eight of the top 10 US recycling plants to curb serious incidents. He talks to Recycling International about the latest developments regarding battery safety.

Can you say something about the scale of the battery fire problem?

‘2018 was a true wake up call for the global waste and recycling industry with over 365 fires – and 40+ fires taking place in each of the months of May, June and August. (TIP: check Ryan’s 2020 report here!) We saw an increase in incidents at our clients’ operations in North America and batteries also caused trouble in markets further from home, notably in Japan, the UK, and Australia.

Do you think recyclers are taking this problem seriously?

‘The main approach in the past few years was “let’s hide these incidents at all costs” due to the harmful effects they can have on insurance costs, government contracts and the like. I’m glad to say that the industry saw a profound change in 2018, following the spike in incidents. Suddenly, most major players started sharing their issues with fires and wanted to educate the public on how to dispose of their batteries properly.

Basically, I think the days of running an operation without the proper fire prevention safety standards in place are over. There is just too much risk to ignore, especially if you want to stay in the good grace of the public, government and insurance companies.’

Is the number of incidents going up?

‘Companies active in the waste – especially recovered paper and plastic – as well as the C&D sector have invested heavily in systems like Fire Rover to put out fires. But, yes, the numbers are still growing even though sites equipped with our solution have extremely favourable track records. Electronics recycling is another burgeoning industry segment and we have seen more and more fires over the years. My gut tells me this I just the beginning of an increase over the next few years as more operators get into the business.’

What is the best way to put an end to fires altogether?

‘The best way to prevent a battery fire is to sort batteries from our waste stream completely. The problem is that this is not a simple task. These batteries hide in our waste. Think about a paper greeting card that plays music: most people would just assume this is paper and can be recycled but a battery is hidden between the paper. The good news is that the industry is no longer trying to hide the gravity of the situation.

The way I see it, we need a three-fold solution of prevention, education and technology. Proper prevention planning (safety tests on-site, communication with fire departments) is imperative and good operators will certainly have fewer fires than bad operators. Educating the public on proper disposal techniques is also vital in stemming the tide. Last but not least, technology such as our patented Fire Rover 24/7 early detection and fire elimination solution has gone a long way to mitigating the risks of waste and recycling operations across North America.’

Waste collections were paused several times during lockdown. Did this create dangerous situations with end-of-life batteries?

‘Any time material sits on a tip floor, in a bunker or in a truck there is a chance that it could catch fire but in my opinion the movement of the material is where we see most events occurring. Interestingly, last March we actually saw the lowest number of fires in the US and Canada but we also saw the two highest months in the back half of the year. That is why I think that we will only truly understand the effects of the pandemic with a couple more years of data under our belt.’

Which types of batteries are the most problematic?

‘Lithium-ion batteries have caused lots of trouble. The fact is, there are so many batteries with so many different chemistries… A major issue is the issue of removal of batteries from electronics that make removal a danger in itself. No two fires are the same.

Lithium-ion batteries are known to trigger incidents, even during use.

One day we have wood chips and an accelerant causing a major fire at our MRF, the next it is a lithium-ion battery exploding in a pile of auto shredder residue. Even a simple 9V battery can cause a fire if combined with a conductive material. The one thing that remains constant is that in order to successfully deal with these fires, you need to detect them early and immediately. The longer a fire grows, the harder it is to put out and the more damage it is going to cause.’

Recyclers are the ones dealing with the bad press, not consumers or battery manufacturers. What are your thoughts on this?

‘While education of the public is a large part of the answer, I do believe that we need to start holding the manufacturers responsible for their products. Eunomia [consultants] did a study where they estimated that 86% of costs of the battery fires was being unfairly borne by the waste and recycling operators with fire professional organisations bearing most of the rest. That translates to U$1.2 billion (EUR 1 billion) in the US and Canada every single year.

There are laws being voted on in California to hold the manufacturers responsible by creating a reverse deposit programme. The question is where the funding generated by this programme will go? Currently it is set for education and proper disposal, which I don’t doubt need the funding but we also need money going to fire departments and operators to invest in proper suppressant products and technologies like Fire Rover. Only then can we learn to deal with the problem when and where it is occurring.’

Are you satisfied with existing waste batteries regulations in the US?

‘I believe we need a carrot and stick approach. As I said, it is so important that we hold those responsible for creating this problem in the first place, the battery manufacturers. Let’s face it, we as the public have a never-ending thirst for more portable power while our waste and recycling operators and fire professionals are left to clean up our mess.  We need a healthy, solid infrastructure in place to handle our batteries. If this doesn’t happen, the public are going to pay for it in the end with lower capacity and higher prices to keep our material out of landfill.’

Are there any battery-related developments that you are particularly excited about? 

‘I used to get excited about the newest technology that claims to be better and safer that lithium-ion batteries but the truth is that battery hazards are not disappearing anytime soon. I remember speaking with a researcher who shared with me their goal of publicising potential alternatives was just to get more funding for their research. Imagine that. In reality, finding the a new technologies, commercialising them and then getting all batteries out of the waste stream will take years if not decades to accomplish. We are going to be cleaning up after battery fires for a long time.’

What do you think the future holds regarding battery-operated products and their end-of-life?

‘I think manufactures are going to bow to the pressure of making their batteries easier to remove from products. We are going to continue to teach the public how to protect themselves from batteries and properly recycle them. I’m confident things will get better over time but there are trillions more batteries that are going to be manufactured and will fall into our waste and recycling streams.’

2020 was a strange year. What do you hope to achieve with Fire Rover in 2021?

‘I hope to continue to get our Fire Rover solution on the front line fighting fires in waste and recycling industries as well as other industries like chemicals. Most importantly, in writing my new fire safety analysis this year, I realised that I am not just selling fire protection equipment. No, I am selling insurance to help mitigate our customer’s risk. We are their outsourced fire brigade on call 24/7 to protect them from harm. Insurance companies are seeing the value and are coming back to the waste and recycling industries with their risk mitigated. This helps keep a healthy infrastructure in place which is critical to our industry.’

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