Improper battery recycling poses a huge risk to employees and the community
Around 8:30 p.m. on September 7, 2016, employees at the Shoreway Environmental Center’s materials recovery facility (MRF) in San Carlos had just started processing materials after a meal break when they noticed something was terribly wrong.
A small fire had started in one of the automated screens that mechanically separates mixed paper from other recyclables. The fire quickly spread deeper into the facility as materials continued to be conveyed.
“Staff sprang into action and began extinguishing the fires they could access,” said Dwight Herring, General Manager of South Bay Recycling who operates the RethinkWaste*-owned facility. “It was emanating thick, acrid black smoke and the supervisor at the time made the call to evacuate.”
While there were thankfully no injuries, the building interior and processing equipment suffered extensive fire, smoke and water damage — damage significant enough to suspend the facility’s ability to process recyclable materials. After examining the site, fire investigators strongly suspected the ignition source was likely a lithium-ion battery.
It was three months before the MRF could start processing materials again, and an entire year before the building and damaged equipment were fully restored. During this time, some employees were temporarily laid-off while repairs were made.
After the repairs were finished, the facility’s insurance coverage cost increased significantly, ultimately impacting user rates. “Just because the facility shut down doesn’t mean the material flow stopped. We had to make arrangements to have third party haulers come in and remove that material,” Herring said.
Since the fire, the facility has increased staff fire safety training and installed additional fire suppression equipment throughout the MRF, including improved sprinkler systems and an automatic plant-wide system shutdown in the event of fire. But those safety measures can only do so much.
What the Shoreway facility and all haulers in San Mateo County really need is for residents to make sure batteries don’t get put into their recyclables or trash. “When you’re discarding a battery, and you’re discarding it inappropriately — whether it’s the black cart or the blue cart — you’re basically putting a bomb in that container. It takes very little damage to a lithium-ion battery for it to explode,” he said. “You’re literally putting an incendiary device into a pile of paper.”
Recycle your Batteries Right, contact your local waste hauler for recycling options, or visit RecycleStuff.org