Propane, batteries, bullets in recycling putting workers at risk

Recycling companies in British Columbia have seen 7 fires this year alone

Propane, batteries, bullets in recycling putting workers at risk
Across North America, the recycling industry saw a 26-per-cent increase in the number of fires in waste and recycling facilities in 2018

Recycle BC is sounding the alarm over the rising number of explosive and hazardous materials British Columbia residents are placing in the province’s residential packaging and paper recycling. B.C.’s major recycling collectors and processors have seen seven fires in 2019, with several of them having endangered lives and forced the temporary closure of facilities.

“Hazardous materials present a very real danger for workers in B.C.’s recycling industry,” says David Lefebvre, director of public affairs for the not-for-profit organization Recycle BC. “A resident [recently] put 58 rounds of live ammunition into their recycling. We need people to think before they put something that is potentially explosive and deadly into a recycling bin.”

In 2019, two-thirds of container loads had hazardous materials present, a 47-per-cent increase over the last five years, Recycle BC says. Hazardous materials include: butane and propane canisters; batteries (especially lithium-ion batteries); compressed gases; ammunition; knives; sharps; and bear spray.

Fires are such a significant issue to recycling companies that material receiving facilities often have special teams trained to respond to fires. While Recycle BC says it is able to put out the majority of incidents before they become unmanageable, the potential for injury and significant damage to the recycling system is high. Last year, the waste industry reported three deaths and 13 injuries across North America due to these types of incidents.

“Hazardous materials have a significant impact on our staff. We are concerned about their safety and the potential for someone to be injured or worse,” says Alisa Murray, health and safety co-ordinator at Cascades Recovery.

Across North America, the industry saw a 26-per-cent increase in the number of fires in waste and recycling facilities in 2018, with 371 unique incidents reported between February 2018 and January 2019. The risk of fires or explosions is especially high for material collection vehicles and receiving facilities due to large amounts of paper. The combination of easily flammable material, plenty of oxygen and large piles of sorted material — where sparks can smoulder for lengthy periods of time undetected — makes the presence of hazardous material especially precarious, Recycle BC says.

“Sorting and recycling processes are fast-paced, with material constantly getting moved, compacted and crushed,” says Oleg Vinokurov, industrial engineering manager at Green by Nature. “A recycling baler can develop pressures of hundreds of pounds per square inch. Compacted at these pressures, any compressed gas cylinder becomes a potential bomb for our employees.”