Government of Ontario

OFM - Waste Handling 5

Protecting the Public and the Environment


Recycling has the advantages of reducing the quantities of materials that are deposited in the province's landfill sites and saving natural resources. To adequately protect the public, the advantages of recycling must be coupled with appropriate fire safety measures.

The economic issues of handling wastes and recycling

While there are many reputable operators in this industry, there may be some opportunities for unscrupulous persons to simply rent a large warehouse, collect money to stockpile waste plastic, tires, drums of liquid wastes, etc. in the warehouse, then disappear with the proceeds.

Operators of waste transfer stations may charge a fee to receive and collect waste materials. However, they usually must pay for final disposal. Therefore, huge storage piles sometimes result.

As well, insurance policies may not be purchased or are allowed to lapse. These buildings may be in poor condition and in receivership with many years of municipal back-taxes owed. Soil contamination of these sites may also result in substantial clean up costs before the property can be sold to recover costs. Clean-up may only be possible using public funds. Owners of properties that are heavily mortgaged may be more likely to walk away, where costly improvements are necessary.

The number of recycling facilities

According to current information contained in the Ministry of Labour's database, a search of Standard Industrial Classification 5919 (recycling operations), identified about 450 locations. A review of this data reveals most of these operations recycle scrap metal and some known recyclers of plastic and construction wastes are absent from this list.

Ministry of the Environment and Energy estimates that there are between 464 and 630 waste transfer and processing sites that handle plastics in Ontario.

A third resource, the Recycling Council of Ontario*, advises a smaller number, 302 - with 195 sites doing at least plastics processing, 97 sites doing other activities with plastics (haulers, end-users, brokers, import/export), and 10 reuse centers.

Other resources such as the Ontario Waste Management Association and the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries also maintain lists of member companies.

* (Founded in 1978, this private organization promotes recycling of solid waste material to encourage reduced generation of solid waste and promote waste management strategies. This organization supports the principles of reduce/reuse/recycle and provides educational materials on recycling.)

The unique fire, explosion and environmental risks

To better understand the true scope and nature of the problem, it is appropriate to examine what unique fire risks exist at recycling and waste handling operations. Disposal and recycling of combustible materials pose some unique fire, explosion and environmental risks when compared to other industries.

Due to the fact that it is unlikely that anyone would wish to steal these materials, it is not uncommon to find them stored in unsecured areas accessible to vandals.

Waste materials may be mixed with incompatible materials or stored improperly. Given that most of the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS) requirements do not apply to wastes, it is not uncommon for containers to be unlabelled, mislabelled and lacking in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Therefore, it is often difficult for waste handlers to know how the materials should be stored and handled. Waste transfer stations may be equipped with laboratories and personnel who test materials prior to combining for bulk shipment. Errors in analysis may have disastrous consequences when chemicals are combined for shipment.

Fire departments face the challenge of not knowing what materials are stored at waste handling or recycling facilities in their community. Unlike a warehouse that stores and handles finished goods, waste handling operations receive a variety of solids or liquids. As a result, the firefighters' ability to effectively manage a fire emergency, at these sites, may be hampered by not knowing what is stored, or how or where it is stored. For these reasons, floor plans and inventory lists are essential components of pre-fire planning.

Unlike storage arrangements usually found in industry, waste and recycled materials may be stored in extremely large piles. Bacterial action and oxidation are two chemical reactions that may result in spontaneous heating within these large insulating piles. These piles may self-ignite, creating deep-seated fires that are both difficult and labour-intensive to fight.

Fires that occur in these large piles of combustible materials may quickly grow beyond the fire fighting resources of the local fire department. The owner may expect the fire department to make every effort to put out the fire. Pouring water on the fire may in some circumstances add to the environmental consequences. Runoff water and a low temperature fire may contribute to water and air pollution.


Plastics are generally considered to be quite inert until they catch fire. Although many plastics do not catch fire easily, once ignited most tend to burn poorly, generating considerable smoke until high temperatures are attained. When burning at high temperatures, on an equal weight basis, plastics can produce about three times the heat of wood.

When polyvinyl chloride (PVC) burns, its major combustion products include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride. However, numerous other chemicals may be generated depending on the conditions of burning and the additives that are present in almost all plastics, including PVC.

Incomplete combustion of PVC can produce dioxins and furans, particularly where the burning is at low temperature with insufficient oxygen. Polybrominated biphenyl's, widely used as flame retardants in plastics, generate dioxins and furans when these plastics burn. Burning certain combustible materials (e.g. plastic, paper, wood, certain chemicals) at low temperatures also generates these extremely toxic chemicals.

Factors that determine human and wildlife toxicity include:

• duration of exposure,

• chronic versus acute effects of the chemicals, and

• direct and indirect routes of entry.


Toxicity of the several hundred dioxins and furans ranges from slightly toxic to highly toxic. 2,3,7,8 - tetrachlorodibenzo dioxin (TCDD), a particular dioxin, is among the most toxic substances known.

Chemical contaminants may be washed into local watercourses and down into the watertable. In addition to contaminating soil and watertables in the immediate vicinity of the fire, contaminated water that finds its way into streams, rivers and lakes could kill fish and wildlife.


How these fires start

Office of the Fire Marshal statistics for wastes, plastics, flammable/combustible liquids and some other chemical materials for 1995, indicate that incendiary fires - those fires started by arson and vandals at 38%, are a significant problem. Analysis of 290 fires that occurred in the UK over 10 year period reveal that 29% of warehouse fires were deliberately set. In addition a significant portion of the 28% of fires of unknown origin were also likely a result of arson.*

* (Warehouse fire in the UK involving solid materials, Bidgood and Nolan, Journal of Loss Prevention in the process industry, 1995, Vol. 8, Number 1 )


How these fires can be prevented

If approximately one third of all fires are deliberately set, then better security measures would likely have the most significant impact on reducing frequency of these fires.

Another important element of prevention is the need to control all sources of ignition, such as:

• spontaneous combustion,

• smoking, and

• welding or hot work.


How the environmental impact of these fires can be reduced

These methods are known to be effective in reducing the environmental consequences of fires:

• limiting pile size,


• providing automatic fire protection,


• reducing notification time to the fire department,


• ensuring an adequate supply of fire fighting water on the site,


• providing curbs and dikes to contain spills and fire fighting water, and


• training for any staff that may respond.


The total costs of environmental fires

One of the earliest questions that inevitably follows on the heels of a major environmental incident is, "Who's going to pay for all this?". While a logical question, the final costs include social elements well beyond those of the emergency response, such as:

• evacuation,


• community and business interruption,


• primary medical costs for the public and emergency response personnel,


• medium and long-term medical costs,


• cleanup and monitoring,


• any long term environmental disruption,


• any litigation, and


• social costs, such as unemployment, loss of tax base and reduced earnings.

To be expected, total costs will fluctuate widely. The unavoidable conclusion, however, is that the total costs of an environmental disaster will almost always exceed the costs of fire prevention measures. For example, the cost impact of the Hagersville fire was $12,200,000. Preventive measures applied to this site would have cost a fraction of this amount.