Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

Waste Challenge

An enormous blaze in Connecticut highlights the fire hazard present in waste and recycling facilities


In January, an enormous blaze broke out at a waste transfer station in Willimantic, Connecticut, about 30 miles outside of Hartford. The plume of thick, black smoke rising from the family-owned Willimantic Waste Paper Company’s 100,000-square-foot facility was so large that it registered on weather radar maps. It took about 200 firefighters from 14 fire companies over 20 hours to get the fire under control. Although the building had a working sprinkler system and was up to code, according to the Associated Press, it was a total loss.

As the Earth’s population grows, so will the amount of waste it generates; in theory, the number of fires at waste and recycling facilities would also increase, and it’s not uncommon for fire departments around the world to respond to similar fires almost daily. Fires in these facilities can be challenging, in part because they typically smolder for a day or longer before they’re fully extinguished.

NFPA Journal recently asked Stuart Lloyd, global fire protection lead for Zurich insurance company and an expert on these fires, why they tend to burn so long and how they can be prevented.

What is it about waste and recycling facilities that make fires more challenging to put out?

Waste facilities often have waste strewn across the floor below a really high ceiling. There are no defined storage piles, no flue spaces, and no aisle ways. As such, they don’t align with traditional sprinkler protection systems based on NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. It’s much different than a traditional warehouse where neatly palletized goods are stored in piles or on racks with defined flue spaces, aisles, and prescribed maximum ceiling heights.

This bulk, porous mass of waste introduces the potential for a fire to smolder inside of it. While fixed fire protection systems like automatic sprinklers may control the fire on the surface of a bulk mass, they’ll likely have no effect on a fire spreading within the mass because the water doesn’t get all the way through it. Because of this, these fires may burn for days. In the U.K., we’ve had waste fires that have taken a week or more to fully extinguish.

What are the consequences of waste and recycling fires?

During a waste fire, often no waste can be processed by the facility, yet waste is always coming in. This could mean it has to be stored somewhere onsite that’s not designed or intended for such storage, which can be dangerous, especially if another fire breaks out. It could mean transporting the waste elsewhere, which creates added costs. In any case, it could lead to service issues for the community. Recycling facilities face more monetary repercussions since they’re no longer generating products from the raw materials that come in.

There also may be health and environmental hazards associated with these fires. With plastics burning in many of them, the gases emitted from these fires can force public officials to close businesses and schools. [This happened during the recent Connecticut fire.—A.V.] Rivers and other bodies of water could be polluted from the water that runs off of these fires.

Considering that kind of impact, how can fires at waste and recycling facilities be prevented?

There are a number of measures that can be considered. For example, it’s a good idea to keep waste away from any mechanical equipment, vehicle exhaust pipes, and anything else that could set it on fire. The waste piles themselves should be kept at a manageable size that the facility is designed to handle. Adding noncombustible barriers to break up the bulk mass of waste and separate it from equipment can help, too.

Some projections estimate that by 2100, the world’s population will be producing three times as much waste as it does now. Does that worry you?

Yes, this does concern me, and I think we could hit a threefold increase in [waste facility] fires even sooner than 2100 if waste processing capacity doesn’t keep pace with increased waste production. I think research is needed to help identify better means of fire protection specific to waste and recycling facilities.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: AP/Wide World