Industry experts are divided over whether more indoor storage of waste would cut the number of fires at recycling plants.
Up to 20 tonnes of material was lost in a fire at a recycling depot in Sheffield, days after blazes at a Jayplas facility in the West Midlands and a Sweeep site in Kent. All three fires appeared to involve waste stored in the open air.
MRW has reported that fire chiefs and environment officials were investigating whether tighter controls were needed to prevent fires in the recycling industry.
“The evidence seems to suggest that external storage of inflammable material, in particular plastics, paper and textile, in large amount, represents a risk,” Keith Freegard, director at consultancy Axion Recycling, told MRW this week.
“The material is open to deliberate local vandalism, like arson, or careless use of lighted items. This makes outside storage, especially in dry periods, very susceptible to fires.”
Safety considerations, along with increasing difficulties in obtaining insurance coverage for large scale external waste storage, could drive a shift towards more indoor storage, he added.
However, John Glover, managing director at Bywaters, said indoor storage was expensive, not only because it required large buildings, but because enclosed facilities incur into higher taxation in the form of business rates.
“A company’s exposure to business rates may jump 10 times for a covered site, even though covering produces no additional income,” he told MRW.
He argued that if business rates on buildings used for recycling activities were lowered, the vast majority of companies would have enclosed storage facilities within five years.
Freegard instead called for the government to promote safety by offering capital support or tax incentives for business expenditure on fire systems.
Steve Lee, chief executive at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, told MRW: “There is no ideal solution, because both inside and outside storage poses benefits and problems.
“Top quality site management is, however, clearly becoming increasingly important. As an industry we must develop and share best practice, and we are keen to work with stakeholders and regulators to tackle this issue.”
Phil Conran, director at consultancy 360environmental, said sites that store waste inside were not immune to large fires.
Fire risk increases when facilities’ capacities are stretched, he told MRW, noting that the Environment Agency’s permitting regime restricts sites’ throughput rather than their storage levels.
“With market issues such as this year’s Green Fence import crackdown in China, and the commodities crisis we saw in 2008, being unplannable, often sites contain far more waste than originally intended although still within their permit allowance,” he said.
Glover and Freegard both suggested that semi-covered storage could be the best solution for many firms, with roofed structures fitted with sprinklers to contain fires and incur lower business rates than full buildings.