How can we improve fire safety for waste, recycling plants?

A recent study shows fires at waste and recycling plants like the one in Indiana are on the rise.

How can we improve fire safety for waste, recycling plants?
Michael Conroy / AP

massive fire at an Indiana recycling plant this week billowing heavy black smoke into the air from plastics burning is expected to last for days. 

A recent study shows fires at waste and recycling plants like the one in Indiana are on the rise. 

The 6th Annual Reported Waste & Recycling Facility Fires US/CAN, published in 2021, tracked 390 fires in 2022 at waste and recycling plants compared to 367 fires in 2021 — an increase of 23 fires. Two people lost their lives, and the fires were tied to 56 direct and indirect injuries, according to the study. 

Ryan Fogelman, the vice president of fire protection solutions at Fire Rover, published the report. Fogelman estimates about 90% of the fires in the study happened in the United States. He reviewed the number of fires during the first quarter of 2023 and said it's already proving to be a challenge. 

"The second-worst quarter that we've ever had in January, February, March," Fogelman said. "Unfortunately, we're going into the summer months now. It literally tends to double during the summer months."  

The study is based on fires reported by news outlets, which Fogelman believes is a significant undercount. He said his company alone responded to more than 3,000 fires or hot spots at businesses in 2022. 

According to Fogelman, the U.S. government does not require companies to report fires at waste and recycling sites, making it difficult to track fire outbreaks accurately. 

Lithium-ion batteries have been blamed as the culprit of fire outbreaks. 

Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire.

EPA testing for asbestos following Indiana industrial fire

The Environmental Protection Agency is collecting debris to test for asbestos following a fire at an Indiana recycling plant.


As more companies turn to lithium-ion batteries for gadgets, a 2021 EPA report found that waste facilities have seen an increase in batteries at waste sites, forcing workers to become defacto experts at spotting batteries and extinguishing fires. 

"Most of the studies say that one out of every two fires that you're seeing now is a lithium-ion battery caused fire," Fogelman said. 

He said in 2018, countries around the globe noticed a wave of fires tied to the batteries. 

"As the public, we're making bombs and putting them in our trash, "Fogelman said. 

To help prevent future fires at waste and recycling plants, Fogelman said it's vital to invest in technology and proper recycling education, and to put in place protocols for battery manufacturers. 

"I think the government needs to hold the manufacturers responsible, which means that the manufacturers need to spend money on more than just education, but they need to spend money on education and technology and really helping the fire departments train," Fogelman said. 

The report estimates annual fires across the U.S. and Canada at waste and recycling plants cost more than $1.2 billion in all. 

Fogelman added that by properly disposing of batteries and hazardous chemicals used in households, people can do their part to prevent fires. He reminds people that stores like Home Depot, Lowe's and many more will accept batteries and some hazardous material.