Overcoming the Challenges of Fire Safety in the Waste and Recycling Industry

Facilities for managing waste and processing recyclable materials often comprise a perfect cocktail of kindling and conditions to spread a fire. This requires highly reliable fire detection – AVIOTEC keeps constant watch for the first signs of flames or smoke.

March 24, 2022

5 Min Read


Waste is a feature of every premises, from residential to industrial. How this waste is handled varies between countries and regions. Entire companies make it their business to accept and process trash. Some sort and recycle materials such as plastics, paper and glass. Some collect or receive anything considered of potential value for its parts and components, including electrical appliances and battery-operated devices. Others still collect mixed or non-recyclable garbage and take it to their landfill or incineration facilities. The unpredictable combination of materials and substances which end up on waste management sites, plus the conditions and operational activities, make them hazardous environments with continual high fire risks.

Huge dangers from battery buttons

In recent decades, lithium batteries have been used more than ever in portable, handheld devices, toys and gadgets. The small button batteries are also inserted in greeting cards providing audio or animation. These are often unwittingly disposed of incorrectly either in recycling – and due to the glitter or glued-on elements, the cards cannot be recycled as paper – or thrown into general waste bins with the battery still inside. These batteries can easily ignite or spread a fire, or even combust if overheated.

Hazardous hand gels

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers could purchase antibacterial hand soaps, gels and wipes for everyday usage. Sales of these items have increased massively, however, since 2020. In addition, now every premises receiving an influx of visitors, from shops and cafes to hotels and office buildings, provide hand dispensers. Surfaces are wiped with similar antibacterial cleaning agents. These products typically contain 60-70% alcohol, making them extremely flammable. For the healthcare profession, WHO even provides guidelines on their storage, use and disposal, including: “Risk assessments should be carried out on the use of alcohol hand-rubs … and the disposal of used containers/dispensers and expired stock, giving consideration to the risks of fire.” But average consumers throw away used wipes in their regular trash, and perhaps recycle plastic gel bottles, adding further to fire risks on waste management sites.

High-pressured environment

Frequently disposed items can pose risks of explosions or cause flames to spread within seconds. Aerosol cans, remnants of cosmetic or cleaning products, cigarette lighters and broken gadgets all contribute to mountains of garbage. Sources of heat and movement – excavators, sorting conveyor belts or compactor machinery, strong sunlight, wind tunnels between constructions and waste piles, and human activity on site – all have the potential to shift and stir this cocktail of fire hazards. On ignition, the flames are likely to be fed continuously by the waste itself and dry, dusty conditions. This allows fires to spread over a wide area within minutes, posing danger to life and the environment with the flames, toxic billowing smoke from burning chemicals or materials.

Insufficient safeguarding outside

Another feature of waste management and processing sites is that many of these premises are completely or partially outdoors. There’s a further risk of people dumping unsorted trash outside of operational hours, which could include flammable materials or substances their regular trash collection will not accept. In addition, not only windy conditions and harsh sunlight can trigger smoldering and ignite fires. These open areas are open to attack by arsonists, especially overnight. Flames won’t stop at the perimeter of the business site – they will continue ravaging around and through any buildings and machinery in their way. Even when firefighters arrive on site, the speed of fires on waste plants often means it is too late to salvage anything.

Downtime and damages

Even if total damage hasn’t been declared after a fire on a waste processing facility, daily operations of sorting, shifting, recycling or incinerating trash could be interrupted, or even a whole premises shut down for damage assessments, investigations and repair work. Companies still have to pay staff even when they cannot access their workplace. Operational downtime can greatly impact efficiency and business costs. Although many companies are taking greater action towards fire prevention, for instance, with more thorough waste separation, fires still break out all too often. Fire Safety Journal reported on the growing reluctance of insurance companies to provide cover for such sites as damage from fire occurs too frequently. Those that do sell this insurance demand high premiums.

“We needed additional fire monitoring at our wastepaper headquarters. Standard fire detection systems have their limits and huge amounts of dry dust are generated on our premises.”

- Head of Fire Department at AVIOTEC customer, Mohn Media Print Factory

Large-scale coverage, 24/7

Innovative technology within AVIOTEC video cameras keeps watch for flames and smoldering, day and night, outdoors and indoors, all to the same reliably high standard. Even when dust flies, rain pours or on gray, overcast days the algorithms are set up to recognize any sign of fire, due to the camera’s protecting housing and powerful, 2-lux sensitivity level. Infrared lights help serve the equivalent vigilance overnight, and as AVIOTEC can be installed in the same locations are surveillance equipment, they can double as security monitoring and fire detection video cameras. The angle of the cameras can be adjusted as needed to cover specific, wide sections of a waste management site. Thanks to the precise customization of the algorithms, the cameras can easily differentiate between moving personnel and equipment and drifting smoke or flames. False alarms are therefore very rare.

Applying AVIOTEC to the waste and recycling industry

Mohn Media Mohndruck GmbH, based in Gütersloh, Germany, provide offset printing services with customized solutions for their clients. This means they deal with masses of paper every day. They are part of the Bertelsmann Printing Group, who have been a Bosch Security and Safety customer for 35 years. The company’s fire department needed a special fire monitoring solution for their huge wastepaper warehouses, with eight-meter-high ceilings, which frequently store around 300 metric tons of paper. The height of these constructions meant a usual smoke detector would be too slow to pick up any burning vapor. Bosch installed AVIOTEC video cameras for a rapid solution to alert against detected smoldering or kindling. Jörg Naumann, the Head of the Fire Department at Mohn Media, says he and his colleagues are continuously “impressed by the innovative solutions that Bosch comes up with” to address their fire safety concerns.

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