Why does plastic accumulate in recycling centers and catch fire

Recycling plants stock millions of tons of plastic bottles, EPA SaysSome have become part of a growing problem of toxic fires in these factories, according to data provided by environmentalists. Critics say beverage companies should do more to make their products more recyclable.

The majority of combustible materials in facilities are polyethylene terephthalate plastic, otherwise known as PET, a clear, tough plastic commonly used to make single-use beverage bottles, packaging, clothing and carpets. Most consumers think this type of plastic can be recycled, but most are in recycling facilities where experts say it’s at risk of ignition.

Photo: Stacks of plastic bottles seen outside Ming's Recycling.

Stacks of plastic bottles are seen outside Ming’s Recycling.

Jeff Dunleavy / Recycling Ming

The problem of PET waste is exacerbated by the fact that much of it is not recycled. In the US, plastic bottles are sold to reprocessing plants where about 29% are recycled, according to National PET Container Resource Associations. The rest ends up in landfills, or often accumulates so that it can be sold and exported to other countries. Previously, the main buyer of PET plastic was China, but it issued an import ban on plastic waste in early 2018.

Experts say another reason PET bottles form is that many are made from colored dyes, often green like soda bottles, and use shrink-wrapped labels, which destroys the recyclability of plastic.

“I’ve seen more fires in the past two years than I’ve ever seen,” Ryan Fogelman, a firefighting entrepreneur who tracks fires at recycling plants across the United States, told ABC News. While the exact cause of the fires is unclear and can vary, experts say a buildup of plastic and other materials ignited by the batteries may be to blame.

The number of fires is steadily increasing

more than 82 million metric tons of PET plastic They are produced globally every year, says the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s more than 30 times the amount of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is currently the size of Mexico.

Experts say the number of reported fires has steadily increased over the past five years and believe this is due to the buildup of a range of combustible materials such as paper and plastic, sparks from discarded lithium-ion batteries and an increase in temperatures as the climate warms.

Fogelman, part of a company that promotes fire prevention systems, began collecting data on recycling and waste facility fires in 2016 when he noticed a gap in data reports on this type of fire. “There has never been any data anywhere, and if you look at the United States, there is no regulation,” he told ABC News.

There were 343 fires at waste and recycling facilities in the United States and Canada in 2019, causing 49 injuries and two deaths, according to data from Fogelman, cited by the Environmental Protection Agency. Report.

this number It rose to 367 fires in the United States and Canada in 2021, Fogelman reported, resulting in 37 infections and two deaths.

Recent fires have been reported at recycling plants around the world in Turkey, South Wales and Austria as well as Northern California, New Mexico and the Bronx, where five firefighters were injured putting out a fire in June 2019, according to the ABC affiliate WABC in New York.

Jan Dale, chemical engineer and former national climate advisor to the White House and founder of the nonprofit monitoring organization Last Beach Cleanup Who keeps track of fires?said she has noticed a lack of data reporting recycling facility fires.

“I honestly can’t keep up, there’s a lot of them,” Dale told ABC News about the fires in recent years.

plastic accumulation

Since the Chinese government banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, these bottles have just been collected at reprocessing facilities or sent to landfills, said Jeff Donleavy, general manager of the Ming recycling facility in Haywood, California. “Americans don’t turn these materials into new bottles, and that’s not happening here,” he said.

Photo: Stacks of plastic bottles seen outside Ming's Recycling.

Stacks of plastic bottles are seen outside Ming’s Recycling.

Jeff Dunleavy / Recycling Ming

This is especially true with waste dyed green, according to Dell.

“In other countries, beverage companies are voluntarily switching to PET scans because they know it’s already recyclable,” she said.

South Korea passed a series of regulations in 2020 banning added dyes or sticky labels on plastic bottles to preserve the plastic’s recyclability. Japan has been practicing a similar practice since 2001, while France, the United Kingdom, and other countries are following suit. The United States has not introduced any law at the national level, although local communities and businesses have begun to take action.

In July, Coca-Cola Announcing the phase-out From bottles of PET Sprite dyed green, among other soft drinks.

“Coca-Cola’s entire North American green plastic portfolio – including Fresca, Seagram and Mello Yello packaging – will transition to PET scanning in the coming months,” the company said in a statement.

It comes after the company pledged in February to make 25% of its packaging reusable by 2030.

Photo: A forklift carries a stack of plastic bottles at Ming's Recycling.

A forklift loads a stack of plastic bottles at Ming’s Recycling.

Ming recycling

Casey Lovett, senior director of communications for the American Beverage Association, praised the American beverage industry’s efforts to design recyclable bottles.

“American beverage companies are always looking for innovative ways to create a circularity for our bottles,” Lovett said in a statement to ABC News.

But Judith Inc., a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency and president of Beyond Plastic, said plastic bottles in the United States aren’t often recycled into new bottles. Less than 10% of PET bottles are recycled into new food and beverage containers, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources’ Recycling Activity Report 2018.

Oftentimes, says Enck, PET plastic is recycled for one-time uses such as decorating or plastic clothing. She also noted that green bottles are still in use for many popular soft drinks.

California recently went through a sweeper Single-use plastic law which requires 30% of plastic bought and sold in California to be recyclable by 2028 and imposes a corporate accountability system, the first of its kind in the US

“Our whole idea is to give responsibility to producers, the people who are most in the game, to create more sustainable packaging,” state Senator Ben Allen, who wrote the law and chairs the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality, told ABC News.

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