By Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

A multi-agency response was required for a huge fire that consumed about 600 tonnes of plastic and destroyed an unsprinklered recycling plant in Blaenavon, South Wales. It was one of a series of recycling centre fires across the UK in late summer.

The September 4th fire required 60 firefighters, 14 appliances and specialist equipment including aerial ladder platforms, high volume pumps from South Wales Fire and Rescue to tackle the blaze at Capital Valley Plastics in Monmouthshire. Such was the scale of the fire that assistance was required from Natural Resources Wales, Public Health Wales and Gwent Police.

While there were no reported injuries in the blaze, the impact on the local community and environment was significant with local road closures, residents forced to close windows and doors due to harmful smoke and a number of measures employed to minimise the impact of pollution to the local environment. One month later, what remained of the roughly 3,000m2 building was demolished and will be disposed of.

The fire at Capital Valley Plastics was not alone during the past month with recycling fires in Warwickshire, Aberdeen and Killoughnear in Northern Ireland. All were typified by large numbers of firefighters being required to contain the event.

Each event developed high volumes of smoke and contained harmful contaminants. Furthermore, fire water run-off needed to be monitored by the relevant agency and there is the environmental impact of disposing of the damaged properties and the costs, resources and materials required to repair and rebuild them.

These fires not only pose an obvious danger to the health of those nearby, but they also have major environmental implications and significant costs to businesses due to property loss. The impact of a fire to a business was clearly highlighted by a plastics manufacturer similar to Capital Valley Plastics that suffered a fire in 2016. That time it was an organisation called Total Polyfilm. The business never quite recovered from a devastating fire at their plastic film factory in Bamber Bridge, near Preston in May 2016. After the rebuild of the factory the business subsequently went into administration in 2019 with the loss of over 200 jobs.

Preventing large costly fires is possible through a combination of strategies. One of the most effective strategies is the use of sprinkler systems which contain and control fires before the Fire and Rescue Service arrives. They therefore minimise the wider impact of unmanageable fires, reducing costs to business and the economy as a whole. Importantly, by limiting any fire damage, they allow businesses to resume operations quickly, often within hours of the incident. This was adequately demonstrated by a fire at a Biffa waste site in Irlam in May of this year. Fire sprinklers fitted at the site activated, quickly putting the fire out and minimising the damage caused as a result of the incident.

With waste and recycling sites home to such a wealth of combustible materials from paper to plastic, wood to cardboard isn’t it time for the waste industry to take further steps to improve its record on fire safety?

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