FACTS about Fires at Material Recovery Facilities
The claim that fires at recycling facilities are caused by polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) bottles or that these bottles are "part of a growing problem of toxic fires" [story: "Why plastic is catching fire at recycling plants"] is false.
Among other inaccuracies, the title of the article is false. To the extent that fires occur, they take place at material recovery facilities (MRFs), where recyclables are collected, sorted, baled, and sold to recyclers or reclaimers.
The cause of these fires is lithium-ion batteries that are inappropriately included in curbside recycling bins and mistakenly being transported to those material recovery facilities (MRFs). These batteries are igniting during normal sorting and handling processes. The amount of plastic at MRFs has nothing to do with either the number or severity of fires that occur. Even if all plastics were removed from MRFs, there would still be the risk of fires at the plants, as well as the risks of fires in trash trucks, at landfills, and other facilities, because the primary source is lithium-ion batteries.
Paper makes up between 50% and 80% of the materials at MRFs compared to plastic, which makes up approximately 10-15%. Paper, including cardboard, newspaper, and junk mail, is more combustible than plastic. According to EPA, "When fires do start, they may spread quickly due to the large amounts of paper and cardboard present."
The focus on plastic as either the cause of or major contributing factor for fires at MRFs is simply incorrect and misleads readers. The single most important intervention in reducing battery fires at MRFs is to eliminate any lithium-ion products from getting into the recycling stream. This includes building out a dedicated system to properly collect and manage products containing lithium-ion batteries at their end of life.
Other claims made in the article that are incorrect, include:
- The claim that PET bottles are "building up is because so many are made with colorful dyes" is incorrect. Over 95% of PET bottles are clear, light blue, or green, which does not negatively impact the recycling process. Colorful labels are removed during the wash process. While clear bottles are easier to recycle than colored bottles, "colorful dyes" are not hampering PET recycling and therefore not causing PET bottles to "build up."
- Jeff Donlevy's claim that "bottles have just been collecting in reprocessing facilities or sent to landfills" since China's government banned plastic waste imports in 2018 is not correct.PET export has fallen steadily since 2010, well before the 2018 changes to China's policies. PET bottles have strong domestic markets, and most PET material is processed domestically. Nearly 4.8 billion pounds of plastics were recycled in the US in 2020 by more than 180 companies, and over 90% of these plastics were recycled in North America, compared to just 60% a decade ago.
- Judith Enck's claim that "less than 10% of PET bottles are recycled into new food and beverage containers" is, at best, misleading. In fact, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources, PET bottle markets were the largest end market user of postconsumer PET bottles in 2020 (the latest year data are available). PET bottles are recycled into many useful products including new bottles and other packaging, carpet, polyester clothing, soft furnishings, strapping, and other materials. The use of recycled content in these products significantly decreases their environmental footprint. We need more recycled content in all products, not just bottles, and recovering more PET bottles for recycling will greatly help reduce the environmental footprint of these packages and products.
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