The Story of Recycling Fires

Fire is a destructive, natural force. It rages across all types of environments, from neighborhoods to forests, creating a blazing drama wherever it occurs.

Fires broke out at recycling facilities across the country this summer, from New Jersey and Delaware to California and Arizona.  When recycling centers catch fire, a number of factors act as catalysts to incite these infernos. Earth911 talked to Paul Hobel, a fire investigator for the Phoenix Fire Department, to find out more.

Setting the Stage

Machinery malfunctions, sparks, cigarettes, vandalism and arson are a few of the myriad ways these blazes can begin.

According to Hobel, the most important factors in fires at recycling operations are weather conditions. Temperature, humidity, and wind all play major roles in the drama of these pyrotechnics. Especially during the summer months when winds are dry and temperatures rise, the stage is easily set for a blaze. “If you raise the ambient temperature 15 to 25 degrees, the fire burns noticeably better,” said Hobel.

Environmental factors are such a powerful force because most large-scale recycling facilities utilize outdoor storage for their product. Some facilities consist of acres of large piles of raw materials for recycling, many of which are highly flammable, such as tires.

Especially considering paper and cardboard, the bundles in which these materials are stored make obtaining access to the fire difficult. If a fire gets into a bundle, the bundle can act as an “umbrella,” increasing the challenge of reaching the flames with water.

According to Hobel, plastics and tires are another story. Plastics burn at a higher temperature and do not extinguish well with water. “Depending on the molecular structure of the plastic, some types can simply flare up when you put water on them,” said Hobel. He also added that there are “a lot of accidental reasons that paper can get lit. But when it comes to tires, there’s more than a spark. They don’t just spontaneously combust. You need an accelerant, a road flare, something to put sustained heat for a while.”

Stage Crew

Another factor at recycling facilities is the high incidence of smaller fires that are typically contained by the facility’s staff. “In general, the recycling people are very responsible and very aware of what they are doing and how to contain a fire,” said Hobel. “In fact, many go above and beyond in training their employees how to react in those situations and have hoses on hand. In that respect, as a group, they are very responsible.”

The problem with this training, though, is that, “by the time they call us, the recyclers are saying ‘we can’t handle it,’” said Hobel. “Then, there’s a four to five minute delay to get the call, respond and get there. Then we have to setup and lay our hoses. If they called us right away on those hot, danger days, that may or may not help minimize the damage.”

According to Hobel, “The danger days are high temperatures, low humidity and hot dry winds. Those are the days the recyclers have to be on their toes and take extra precautions so they can get a jump on them right away.”


Damage to a recycling center translates into a great deal of financial loss. “I’ve investigated a few incidents that were million dollar fires,” said Hobel. Taking into account the expensive equipment such as tractors, conveyor belts, shredders and compactors, the untapped resources in the tons of product awaiting processing and the facilities themselves such as the building, recycling centers have a lot to lose in a fire.

Beyond replacing these assets, money is also lost while the operation is shut down for repair. Also, much of the raw material that did not burn may be ruined, due to the water necessary to prevent a fire’s spread. “Their products are ruined because what doesn’t burn we hose down. The ladder trucks put out about 1,000 gallons of water a minute,” said Hobel. By the time the firefighters arrive, their “biggest concern is keeping the fire from going elsewhere” and “minimize the damage.”

Foreshadow and Resolution

While your normal recycling pickup will not typically be interrupted if a fire affects your local recycling facility (the recycling can be diverted to other operations), there are precautions that you can take at home to prevent your own fire.

One of the most common fires that Hobel sees is fire in curbside trash and recycling bins. “People throw their old motor oil, chlorine and grass clippings in containers. Mixing chemicals can cause heat to build up and ignite the contents,” said Hobel. “The bad news is that you can throw these substances into your containers months apart, but they don’t go away. Pool chemicals, because they contain oxidizers, are caustic, and motor oil sticks around.”

Be sure to properly dispose of all hazardous waste to keep your trash and recycling bins safe and free from these substances. Use Earth911 to find out where to recycle hazardous materials in your area.  Be sure to keep a fire extinguisher at home as well.

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Archived Comments

  1. Robin, Frank

    posted on November 22nd, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    he danger days are high temperatures, low humidity and hot dry winds. Those are the days the recyclers have to be on their toes and take extra precautions so they can get a jump on them right away.