Risk of lithium-ion fires increasing as consumers toss batteries

A new report from the US National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and consulting firm RRS estimates that more than 5,000 fires occur annually at recycling facilities in the US.

Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) process single-stream recycling, and increasingly, these facilities experience catastrophic fires due to lithium-ion batteries erroneously placed by consumers in with their recyclables.

Every day, MRFs receive dozens of lithium-ion batteries due to public misconceptions about how to properly dispose of them. As lithium-ion battery usage grows, so will the risk of fires.

“Lithium-ion batteries are in more items than we might think,” said NWRA interim president and CEO Jim Riley.

“Besides recycling facilities, these batteries are a threat to the entire solid waste and recycling system, from collection to disposal, and impact our members every day. Given the risk they pose, it is important that consumers understand that lithium-ion batteries should not be placed in their waste or recycling bins and should be disposed of properly through the right channels.”

The report also noted that the increased risk of MRF fires has driven up the cost to insure these facilities. The rate of catastrophic losses has risen by 41% over the last five years.  

As a result, insurance has increased from less than US$0.20 per $100 insured property value to as much as $10 per $100 insured, as providers began to understand the threat to MRFs from fires according to members of the insurance industry. The risk of fires and the cost to insure against them is expected to rise in the coming years as the use of lithium-ion batteries continues to grow exponentially.

RRS surveyed a large portion of the industry from integrated service providers to stand-alone companies. “What we found was that the reporting of fires depends on their severity, reporting requirements by the local response agencies, internal policies, and local management practices,” said Michael Timpane, principal and vice-president at RRS. 

“We also found that most MRF managers were measuring their fires frequency locally, regardless of whether they were reported internally or externally, and were getting better at fire detection and vigilance in their facilities.  We were especially surprised that the number of fires per year was this high in the survey, though the majority of fires were small events.”

The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) represents the private sector waste and recycling services industry. Association members include companies that manage waste, recycling and medical waste, equipment manufacturers and distributors, and other service providers.

RRS is a sustainability and recycling consulting firm with offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Boulder, Colorado. It works across the recovery and materials management supply chain. Clients include Fortune 50 companies, solid waste providers, MRF operators, advanced disposal solution providers, associations, end markets, municipalities and the wider government sectors.