It was roughly 150 years ago, Oct. 8, 1871, when a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn on the southwest side of Chicago, igniting the Great Chicago Fire.  The fire burned for three days, destroyed more than 17,000 structures, and killed about 300 people.  Fire Prevention Week was started by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 1922 to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire. 

For the past 100 years, Fire Prevention Week has been an annual observance during the week of October 9, and the entire month of October is now designated as Fire Prevention Month. 

This is the longest running public health observance in the country.  The goal of Fire Prevention Month is to raise fire safety awareness and help ensure people’s families, homes and businesses are protected from fire.

This issue resonates with the scrap metal recycling industry.  The nature of scrap metal recycling leaves it vulnerable to possible fires.  Additionally, a new fire hazard has emerged with the increase in lithium-ion batteries finding their way into the waste stream.    

A scrap yard will receive flammable materials like propane and gas tanks, paints, oil, grease, lubricants, plastics, wood, tires, and other hazardous materials that are co-mingled with recyclables.  This material may end up being crushed, cut, compacted or shredded during the recycling process.  Sometimes workers may not know containers still hold traces of flammable substances, oil-coated metal containers can ignite when pressure is generated, or sparks from friction can ignite flammable materials.     

There are a number of theories about the recent increase in scrap yard fires. 

First is the increasing number of lithium-ion batteries in the waste stream.  Lithium-ion batteries are in an increasing number of consumer goods and e-waste.  Most people are familiar with the rechargeable batteries in their laptops, smart phones and tablets, but these small batteries are also in musical greeting cards, FitBits, smart watches, GPS devices, electronic cigarettes and earbuds.  Unlike traditional alkaline batteries, lithium-ion batteries can become very hot and start to smoke and catch fire if they are broken or crushed.  With the potential for fire already present in the scrap metal recycling process, when lithium-ion batteries enter this waste stream, there is an even greater potential for fires.  

Additional possible reasons for increasing yard fires include stockpiling of scrap in yards due to changing market conditions, dryer and hotter weather conditions, and more waste at recycling facilities due to the increase in “spring cleaning” brought about by the pandemic.

For many years, industry associations and government agencies have been offering guidance to help reduce the number of yard fires.  Back in 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published “Guidance for the Identification and Control of Safety and Health Hazards in Metal Scrap Recycling” that included guidelines to avoid scrapyard fires because of their many negative consequences.  Primarily, the most deleterious effect of scrap yard fires would be injury or even fatalities to workers or firefighters.  Damage to property and business disruptions hurt individual business owners. On a larger scale, insurance companies are increasing rates or even pulling coverage for some recyclers due to the prevalence of certain yard fire claims.  Finally, these fires diminish the reputation of the scrap metal recycling industry.  Recyclers provide an invaluable service keeping waste out of landfills and allowing it to be reused for other purposes, saving energy and natural resources at the same time.  Yard fires contribute to misperceptions about the value of scrap metal recycling.    

Last year, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), published an electronic report offering guidance to help recyclers reduce the number of yard fires. 

The document, “Creating a Fire Prevention and Management Plan,” was developed by professionals in the fields of scrap recycling, fire science and insurance.  It is available to anyone in the scrap recycling business.

In their press release, ISRI stated: “This guidance document provides information on how to prepare a fire prevention plan, fight incipient stage fires and to be prepared in the event of a crisis management scenario.  Even if your facility has an existing plan, this is a valuable tool to help you review your operations and make any necessary improvements.”  ISRI said its plan is to update this guidance annually.    

Other guidance to the industry from fire technology and insurance professionals include:

  1. Implementing a plan with the local fire department
  2. Developing an action plan at your site with your staff, should an event occur
  3. Maintaining an automatic suppression system if you can
  4. Avoiding parking or leaving equipment near a potential heat source
  5. Installing thermal sensors if possible
  6. Training employees to use equipment on hand to contain fires
  7. Having a working automatic sprinkler system and even having a manually operable roof vents
  8. Finally, maintaining good basic housekeeping, limiting dust and material buildup that could act as fuel

Some recyclers and municipal waste facilities have invested in fire monitoring systems which remotely detect increases in heat or “thermal detection” and can also remotely deploy a cooling agent to put out fires.  These companies advocate using both technology and improved processes to cut down fire risk.  

In addition to industry actions to reduce fires, individuals can take steps to improve fire prevention at recycling plants.

Consumers should make sure they do not place electronics which include lithium-ion batteries in curbside recycling. Instead, take electronic waste to designated recycling facilities.  Many stores like Lowes or Home Depot offer periodic collection of electronic waste.  Additionally, consumers should recycle the right items in the right way, making sure bottles, cans, paper and cardboard is clean and empty.  Foods and liquids should be kept out of recycling.  Keep plastic bags out of recycling and make sure dangerous items like propane tanks, cans of paint and all electronics are kept out of recycling.

With increased awareness, consumers and companies can reduce fires at scrap metal recycling plants by utilizing fire protection plans, employee training, public education and investment in fire detection and elimination technologies. 

 If both industry and individuals take action to reduce scrap yard fires, scrap metal recycling can continue to keep material out of landfills and allow for its reuse in a way that helps the environment and the economy while keeping everyone safe.

The NFPA website also offers online resources for individuals, families and businesses.

The association was founded in 1896 and is a global non-profit devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.  Safety tip sheets, training manuals and videos are among the many resources it makes available to help achieve this goal. 

About ScrapWare Corporation: Since 1989, Rockville, Maryland-based ScrapWare Corporation has been the software of choice for the recycling industry. Its ease of installation and simplicity saves users time and money, while helping them achieve compliance and maintain accurate business insights. With state-of-the-art functionality that‘s tailored to each organization’s unique requirements, ScrapWare is an advanced dynamic software solution that alleviates the most pressing recycling industry worries. For more information, please call (301) 517-8500 or visit