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Stemming the Plastic Tide 2 - Plastic fires - a growing concern

Fire at a recycling facility

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Plastic fires at recycling centres like the one in Indiana last month seem to have become much more frequent in recent years. There have been 367 in the past year in the USA and Canada alone and quite a number in Australia. The February fire at a Melbourne recycling facility was the tenth since October last year. Of the UK the Guardian reported in 2017 that some 300 fires a year had occurred at recycling plants between 2001 and 2013. See for example the South Yorkshire fire of 2013 or Manchester, Birmingham or Nottingham recycling centres that same year.

The Bad News about Plastic Fires

Such fires not only cause huge amounts of property damage – the most recent fire in Melbourne for example, is expected to cost some five million dollars, but also pose health risks. Some 2000 people within half a mile of the Richmond fire had to be evacuated for over a week after the EPA detected chemicals such as  hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, at the centre of the fire zone. Traces of asbestos were found in samples taken over a mile away. Many of these are toxic and carcinogenic and remain in the environment. Such fires also emit large quantities of  greenhouse gases -that is, all the carbon which was in the oil from which the plastic was made.

Why have such Fires become more Common?

Plastic fires are generally attributed to one or more of the following causes –

1.    Operators of recycling facilities not following best practice with regard to plastics – see for example, the Richmond, Indiana fire, or for having having flammable materials such as batteries in close proximity, not having enough separation between piles of material or inadequate sprinkler systems and monitoring. You can see a typical list of fire precautions here.  Being made from oil and a cocktail of chemicals, plastics themselves give off volatile gases which can either easily ignite from an accidental  spark or self -combust and they certainly burn well once alight.

 2.    Councils and governments are blamed for not subsidising recycling industries, failing to purchase expensive equipment for reprocessing, or for not regulating or not adequately enforcing fire and safety regulations and for not mandating more use of recycled materials.

3.    Consumers are blamed for putting things into the wrong bins. Misplaced batteries for example,were thought to responsible for the Hume Recycling Centre Fire in Canberra. "Hot hazards," such as aerosols and ashes, were among the causes cited in 31% of UK fires.

5.    The growing popularity of Recycling itself is blamed for causing the build -up, because it exceeds capacity of recycling centres to process it.

6.  Until 2017 – 2018, China  took the bulk of the world’s recycling  Although other nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand have since taken up some of the slack, this has led to enormous stockpiles in countries which formerly exported their waste. However, many of the UK fires in particular, occurred well before this.  

Strangely, little is heard of such fires in other countries. This may be due to under -reporting. Even Canada and the USA did not keep separate records of plastic fires until quite recently. Australia still doesn't seem to have a central reporting register and at least one major recycling centre fire in Queensland was only mentioned as a small item in a local paper. It seems hard to believe too, given the spate of fires in Victoria and Western Australia, that there haven’t been more in the much more populous state of New South Wales.

However, many countries including Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, China, the USA and more recently Australia, do have well -managed high temperature incinerators to dispose of their waste. While these still produce greenhouse gases, they have secondary combustion and scrubbers to remove the majority of the more noxious chemicals. They also greatly reduce the volume of waste material and produce much less methane – the gas which has the most impact on Climate, than landfills do. Downsides are that these are expensive, need energy to run and then lock communities into needing a consistent level of waste, rather than reducing it. When used to produce electricity, heat or fuel, they are more polluting than a coal -fired power station. Around 12% of the world’s plastic is incinerated in this manner.

Why Recycling isn’t working

Overall European recycling rates are higher than in Australia, Canada or the USA –in Germany for example, it’s around 34%, but in practice, a much smaller proportion is in fact recycled than collected– only around 9% globally, according to the UN, nowhere near enough to keep up with the amount of plastic continually being produced.

Only PET bottles and clear plastic can easily be remade. Other types much less so. Contaminated plastics, soft plastics, dyed and printed plastics and those made of compound materials are expensive to sort and reprocess and generally result in an inferior product which can only be recycled a few times. Larger markets such as Germany’s are able to sustain a small flowerpot making enterprise for example, but even they say demand is slow. The cost for collecting and sorting is high in developed countries, so without subsidies, such materials cannot compete with cheap new plastic. Since China stopped taking the world’s plastic, the situation has deteriorated further. The glut of material has caused prices for recycling material to fall, which has not only contributed  to those large stockpiles, but has also resulted in more recycling going directly to landfills. However, land for landfill is also expensive and in short supply in advanced economies, so it’s cheaper to send plastic elsewhere where labour is cheaper and environmental regulations are not as strict. Here’s what really happens to most of your recycling.


The USA still ships over a million tonnes (30%) of its plastic overseas each year. Similar reports also come from Germany, Canada  and the UK. Recycling from the UK supermarket chain Tesco, has been tracked to Poland and  Turkey

Only 12% of Australia’s plastic is recycled and 70% of that is sent overseas for processing. In 2017 -2018 Australia began sending much of its plastic to Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia -some 4.3 million tonnes, an 2.3% increase on the previous year. 

Several councils in New Zealand have abandoned recycling altogether. Because of contamination and the high cost of sorting, it’s cheaper in many cases to send it directly to landfill.

What happens to Plastic when it's sent offshore for recycling


Several things may happen to used plastic once it’s shipped overseas. Most importing countries have even less capacity to manage it than the country of origin, but they allow it because it creates employment. Some may indeed be recycled. Vietnam and Taiwan, for example, do have facilities for reprocessing PET drink bottles

Some may be dumped in unsealed landfills where it can last for hundreds of years before breaking down into ever smaller particles. Unless burnt, plastic never really disappears. Particles can be carried by the wind or leach into soil or waterways along with the chemicals they contain. Before China banned its import, 1.3 million tons of unusable plastic were dumped into the sea each year and this practice has not entirely ceased. No wonder that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow exponentially, as do several others like it. The rest is burnt in open fields, rubbish tips or roadsides, sometimes accidentally, and sometimes to recover precious metals.

It’s been estimated that around 40% of the world’s rubbish is still being burnt in the open air. Without safeguards and scrubbers to remove them, uncontrolled fires release not only greenhouse gases and particulate matter but numerous toxic chemicals including  dioxins, furans, Mercury and Polychloride Biphenyls (PCBs) many of which are carcinogenic, mutagenic or can  affect the reproductive system. They are called ‘forever chemicals’ because when they fall upon soils, rivers and food crops, they accumulate in the food chain and end up in breast  milk and the human body. 

No one disputes that plastic is an amazing material. It's light, cheap and flexible and can be shaped into a multitude of useful products. However, with plastic production already at 380 million tons a year and set to quadruple by 2050, we must find better ways to deal with it. Some of these have already been discussed in the previous article, but we'll look at some of the others in the next post.


By the way, if there is a plastic fire in your area, the health advice is to stay away if you can, follow instructions if you can't i.e. evacuate if necessary, close all your doors and windows and switch off air conditioners. Seek medical advice if you have any medical conditions or experience any symptoms. This advice also applies to other major fires  -bushfires, tyre fires, car and house fires because they too may involve burning plastic. 


PPS: Hope to have prettier pictures and subject matter soon. Arm is almost better and I'm going to physio today.