Major fires at waste management and recycling companies average one daily in the UK. While numbers have remained constant, the scale and profile of fires has increased.
The results of letting this problem run and run are there to see for the local community and environment. However, the issues are increasingly hitting waste management companies on the balance sheet. Insurance premiums are much harder to attain and if they are available, the premium has rocketed. Stretched fire services are increasingly refusing to attend alarms unless visually verified. When fire services will attend without verification, they are penalising firms with fines for unnecessary call-outs. And only this week one waste management director was jailed for environmental damage and flagrant disregard for implementing fire prevention measures.
Simon Jenkins, product manager at FireVu, a fire detection solution supplier, tells us how the situation is rapidly changing and what can be done to resolve the situation for the local community, the environment, emergency services and the waste management and recycling businesses themselves.
FireVu’s parent company was founded in Salford some 30 years ago. Today it is a global operation with offices in the UK, US, Australia, The Gulf and across Europe. Yet, as I write this article, a major recycling plant fire has taken hold near to the Salford base we have retained over all those years.
The fire at a paper recycling plant took hold on Sunday night and appeared to be under control and close to being extinguished. The situation changed for the worse on Monday morning. A thick black plume of smoke silhouetted against an unusually bright and sky blue Salford and Manchester skyline. An early prognosis loosely estimated that the blaze could last for weeks; an update from the fire crews on site predicted that crews would be there for several days.
On the ground the intensity of the blaze is making an even stronger impression. Some 30,000 paper bales are estimated to be on fire, some 100,000 bales in all could be destroyed.
The disruption acutely affected local businesses: one local garage claimed that it sold only 100 litres of petrol instead of the normal 3,000 litres it would expect on a normal Monday morning. The priority for the fire services is to ensure the safety of neighbouring businesses.
Transport has also been affected. The Manchester to Liverpool railway line’s services have been affected by dense smoke, at times the route was suspended. Road traffic was also affected.
The firm itself, Asset and Land Group, has lost the on-site storage building, which is 500 sq metres combined with the disruption to operations.
The company is no stranger to fire with another major recycling site going-up in flames in August in Stockport, Greater Manchester. In that case Asset and Land has not complied with requirements from the Environment Agency, which licences recycling plants, to remove all waste and provide plans for drainage and waste storage. Asset and Land submitted plans last month which were refused. The agency is currently considering an enforcement response relating to this notice non-compliance.
This Salford fire is hardly an isolated or unusual case. The consequences though might not be evaded as they have been in the past.
The consequences for waste management and recycling businesses
The cost to the environment, fire services, local business community are well documented. Local opposition from communities and politicians to repeat offenders is also well publicised.
The cost though to the waste management and recycling businesses is rising. Fires are increasingly affecting waste management companies where it hurts most: on the balance sheet.
While business disruption is self-evident, especially in view of the length of time fires can take to extinguish and clean up, there are other costs emerging:
New Sentencing Guidelines have just been announced. These come into force on 1st July and will raise penalties substantially for environmental pollution on waste management and recycling sites. Firms with turnovers of less than £10 million could potentially face fines as great as £400,000. Large firms can find themselves at the end of a £3 million penalty.
In Ireland the Oxigen Recycling plant fire has made such an impression on local residents that Dublin City Council has called on the Environment Minister to conduct a review of the waste management licences in the city. Councillors unanimously called for some waste management firms to lose their licenses for certain activities, which may be vulnerable to fire. Surely, such action will be repeated in the UK as the litany of high profile fires continues unabated.
Increasing insurance premiums are an even greater problem for waste management companies. Insurers are pulling out of the sector in droves. Premiums are up for property insurance (buildings, contents, machinery) and business interruption cover. Those that can find and afford insurance policies are finding their policies increasingly weighted with stricter warranties and terms and conditions, meaning that it may become more difficult to make claims in future.
Automatic false alarms are also coming under greater scrutiny. London Fire Brigade has just announced that non-domestic repeat offenders will face new penalties in an effort to save £37 million annually in the capital. It is estimated that about £1 billion is lost in productivity. Many fire services wont attend automatic alarms without visual verification.
These changes must make waste management owners think again about fire prevention and detection measures, which are mainly suggestions rather than mandatory demands of the Environmental Agency at present.
The changes don’t just affect the bottom line, they can affect the liberty of directors and owners of waste management and recycling companies.
The CIWM Journal Online published, as this article is being written, a news piece on the director of the Arcwood Recycling Ltd, Luke Barker.
Arcwood suffered a fire at its wood recycling site in Derbyshire in September and October 2012. The cost to the local environment was extensive with 6km of canal polluted and thousands of fish being killed as a result. This and a catalogue of flagrant flouting of fire safety regulations and lack of co-operation with the Environment Agency, which has spent £200,000 on the canal clean-up led to a prosecution of Barker. The result was a warning shot to other recycling business directors: 8 months custodial sentence (which would have been higher if Barker had not entered an early guilty plea) and a ban on being a company director for 8 years.
Fire detection technology
The technology is there to enable quick action to contain fires before they become entrenched.
Infrared detectors (IR), Aspirating Smoke Detectors (ASD) and Visual Smoke Detection (VSD) offer a range of sophisticated solutions to dealing with potential fire risk early.
Each waste management or recycling site can use the solution that fits its particular requirements, for instance, VSD can survey large sites where fire can break at vulnerable points or indeed at any point and offer visual verification to fire services.
Fire prevention measures such as water curtains can be implemented in combination with fire detection technology.
Waste management and recycling fires are increasing in scale and profile while maintaining a frequency that sees a new incident on average every day.
While the environmental, fire service and local business costs of industry fires has been met by agencies, organisations and companies outside of the industry, there is a shift towards re-focusing the responsibility and costs back onto the waste management and recycling businesses.
Harder to obtain insurance policies, stronger legal action and new policies from some fire services are just some of the signs that the cost and consequences cannot be managed as they have been in the past.
Fire prevention and detection, while not mandatory for all measures that could be taken, offers a way to reduce costs that result from fire taking hold. Indeed, savings might be possible without an incidence of fire through lower insurance premiums and a reduction of fines from false call outs that some fire services levy on industry.
The media profile of waste management and recycling fires ensures that the issue will always be on the agenda. Preventing fires will help take it off the agenda.
Simon Jenkins is the product manager at FireVu, which offers Video Smoke Detection (VSD) fire detection solutions for the waste management and recycling industries.
Simon is contactable on email@example.com or on 01928 7064822
Thanks to Ben Wood editor for the Chartered Institute Waste Management magazine for his kind permission to use the article on the FireVu website as well as in the magazine. Please note that the content reproduced here has slight differences.