Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are responsible for around 48% of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year, costing the UK economy some £158 million annually, according to new research conducted by Eunomia Research & Consulting.
This new report produced jointly with the Environmental Services Association (ESA), entitled ‘Cutting Lithium-ion Battery Fires in the Waste Industry’, reveals that an estimated 201 waste fires caused by Li-ion batteries occur every year in the UK, with damaging consequences for both the environment and society.
The research was supported by a consortium of key stakeholders, including key supporters the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the Environment Agency (EA), and WISH (the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum). The research was sponsored by waste management companies CWM Environmental Ltd, SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK Ltd, Totus Environmental and Viridor Waste Ltd.
Li-ion batteries are found in an increasing number of electrical and electronic household items such as mobile phones, and even items such as singing greetings cards, an issue often unknown to householders. When these 'zombie' batteries get into the residual and mixed recycling waste streams, either loose or inside waste electrical and electronic items (WEEE), they can cause fires when punctured or damaged in the compactor of a refuse collection vehicle or during normal waste processing and sorting operations.
With waste fires burning for days, and sometimes even weeks and months, the environmental damage is extensive, with harmful greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere and water pollution caused by run-off from extinguishing the fires. Dealing with these fires also means extra work and risk to firefighters, as well as disruption to society through rail, retail and road closures due to smoke from the fires. Waste site operators also have to deal with significant material damage, business interruption and loss of recycling resources.
Mark Andrews, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Waste Fires Lead and Deputy Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said:
“NFCC has been targeting the reduction of fires in waste sites for years and this research signals yet another crucial step in our understanding of the underlying causes of these often devasting incidents that can affect whole communities for days at a time.
NFCC very much welcomes this study and we now want to work with the industry to find ways of avoiding Li-ion batteries ending up in the household waste system to help prevent these fires and reduce the impact on local communities, the environment and reduce risk to our firefighters in dealing with these fires when they happen.”
[Library photos of waste management fires attented by HFRS over recent years]
This problem is only set to get worse, with more and more Li-ion batteries placed onto the market each year. Of the 670 fires recorded by ESA waste management members across the UK in 2019-20, 38% were either recorded as caused by Li-ion batteries or ‘suspected’ to have been. This is higher than the percentages recorded in the previous three years by the body (21% in 2016-17, 25% in 2017-18 and 22% in 2018-19).
The problem of Li-ion battery waste fires is acknowledged across the relevant sectors, including the waste management, local government and fire service sectors. 97% of respondents to a survey carried out by Eunomia said that waste fires caused by Li-ion batteries were a problem, with 55% saying they were a significant problem.
Just under half of respondents stated that they had experienced at least one waste fire caused by Li-ion batteries in the past year, and 26% of respondents stated that more than half of waste fires they’d suffered were caused by the batteries.
To prevent these fires, Eunomia’s report presents a number of solutions to divert household batteries and small WEEE from the residual and mixed recycling waste streams to specifically designed disposal routes:
- Ban the disposal of batteries and small WEEE in residual and mixed recycling waste to prevent this practice and increase the public’s awareness of correct disposal routes
- Encourage separate kerbside collection of batteries and small WEEE by local authorities, with costs covered by revised extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes
- Investigate the role of a deposit return scheme (DRS) in supplementing retailer takeback for batteries and small WEEE
Respondents to Eunomia’s survey were supportive of the above measures, with 66% backing separate kerbside collections for lithium-ion batteries, 65% supporting a DRS and 42% backing a ban on the disposal of these batteries in general waste.
Commenting on the research, Eunomia’s lead author of the report Sophie Crossette said:
“The findings of this research highlight the significant financial burden Li-ion battery waste fires place on the waste sector and public sector services. To date, much of the focus on preventing waste fires has been on improved controls and infrastructure at waste sites.
As this report suggests, we now need to focus on upstream interventions to divert batteries and WEEE products from the mixed waste stream to tackle this growing issue. If we don’t start to take action now, the increased use of Li-ion batteries, will only increase the cost and impact of Li-ion battery waste fires in the years to come.”