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Batteries are causing fires at transfer stations & recycling centres

Published: 15th July 2022

Over 600 fires in bin lorries and recycling centres are caused by batteries many of which are hidden inside electricals

  • 45% of householders are unaware of the fire risk if they don’t safely dispose of batteries hidden inside electricals
  • New campaign launched “Stop Battery Fires” to raise householders awareness of how to safely recycle their batteries and electricals
  • Battery fires can endanger the public and waste truck operators by causing fires on streets, and waste centres across the UK and costing local councils millions of pounds.
  • Three times more fires caused by batteries in the waste stream than previously reported, highlighting the significance of the issue.
  • 90% of local authorities say that fires caused by batteries are an increasing problem.

New research conducted by Material Focus amongst local authorities across the UK has identified that over 600 fires in waste trucks and sites are caused by batteries that haven’t been removed from electricals. The research was commissioned to mark the launch of a new campaign, “Stop Battery Fires Campaign”, to raise awareness of how householders can recycle their batteries and electricals.

The findings of the research indicate that there are three times more fires caused by batteries in the waste stream than previously reported, highlighting the significance of the issue. The research surveyed 58 UK local authorities with nearly 90% of these local authorities saying that fires caused by batteries are an increasing problem.

These fires have the potential to endanger the public and waste truck operators by causing fires on streets, and waste centres across the UK and costing local councils millions of pounds. If batteries, or electricals containing batteries, end up inside bins or recycling lorries with other materials then they are crushed in the waste and recycling process. This increases the chances that they could be punctured and self-combust, setting fire to dry and flammable waste and recycling around them.

This research follows similar research conducted by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and Eunomia in 2021 which identified that 201 fires were caused by battery fires. Although the two pieces of research followed different methodologies, Material Focus research indicates that fires caused by batteries are potentially a far bigger issue than previously reported.

Research by Material Focus has also found that up to 45% of householders are unaware of the fire risk if they don’t safely dispose of batteries, with a quarter of householders unsafely throwing them away. 40% of householders are unaware of any information regarding how they should safely recycle their batteries.

In response to this Material Focus is launching the Stop Battery Fires Campaign raising awareness of the simple actions that householders can take to reduce fires. The campaign, which has over 70 local authorities participating, will be promoting the following information: “Never bin hidden batteries, or electricals, don’t put them in your rubbish or recycling bins as they could then start fires in bin lorries on your street. Instead, remove batteries from electricals if you can and recycle the batteries and electricals separately. If you can’t remove the batteries then always recycle your electricals separately.”

Electricals containing batteries that tend to be discarded the most are smaller, frequently used and often cheaper electricals like toothbrushes, shavers, chargers and toys. These items with the “hidden batteries” also tend to be the electricals that people don’t realise contain batteries. 25% of adults say they don’t really know what to do with small electricals with chargeable built-in batteries (rising to 34% of 18-34-year-olds).

Lithium-ion batteries are responsible for around 48% (over 200) of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year according to the Environmental Services Association costing some £158 million annually to waste operators, fire services and the environment.

Mickey, waste truck driver, Buckinghamshire Council, who has experienced a fire in a waste truck said: “In the space of a couple of minutes, it went from a bit of smoke to two foot flames leaping out of the waste truck. On this occasion we were lucky, we could get to a safe place, which meant no one was hurt. We were also able to, with the support of the fire services, put the fire out. However, these types of fires, if we were on a residential street, could cause untold damage. As it is, our trucks are often seriously damaged, causing hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage. It’s simple, we can all stay safe, if everyone separates their batteries, and takes them and their electrical appliances and devices to their nearest recycling point.”

Scott Butler, Executive Director of Material Focus said: “People should never bin their electricals or their portable batteries. If they can, they should remove any hidden batteries from their electricals and recycle the batteries and electricals separately. If they can’t remove the batteries then they should recycle their electricals separately as always. Having listened to the numerous stories of flames engulfing waste and recycling trucks as they drive down residential streets, it’s important that we all take action now to keep our streets, householders, waste and local authority staff, and fire fighters safe. People can find their nearest recycling point for batteries and electricals by visiting our recycle your electricals website.”

Mark Andrews, National Fire Chief’s Council Waste fires lead said: " We urge people to recycle electricals and batteries and not to dispose of them with general household waste. People are often surprised to hear that batteries can cause fires in both bin lorries and waste plants, but they do and as we use and dispose of more electronic devices these incidents are not rare.

"These fires can be challenging for fire services to deal with, have a significant impact on local communities and present a real risk to staff working on lorries and waste plants. Everyone can do their bit and prevent fires by ensuring they dispose of electrical items correctly."

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “Discarding batteries into household waste can be the cause of fires in both waste collection vehicles and waste transfer sites. We would always encourage people to ensure they are discarding batteries and electrical items safely and responsibly by using recycling schemes or at approved local authority refuse centres. We are especially concerned about fires involving lithium-ion batteries, which we are seeing an increase in and which can be very serious. If there is a fire in your home, you should never try and tackle it yourself. Get out, stay out and call 999.”

Councillor Linda Green, Cabinet Member for Communities and Volunteering at Gateshead Council, and Chair of the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership, said:“Fires that involve batteries can prove very challenging and difficult to extinguish, and have a detrimental effect on the environment. I would remind people to dispose of batteries responsibly and not amongst your general household waste or recycling. Used batteries can be recycled in so many places these days. Most supermarkets, DIY shops or anywhere that sells batteries, as well and many public buildings have battery recycling points. Likewise, both batteries and electrical items containing batteries can be recycled at your local Household Waste and Recycling Centre. Larger retailers also have a duty to safely dispose of your old electrical items when you’re buying a new one from them. There’s really no excuse for throwing them in your bin at home.”

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