Why plastic is piling up in recycling centers and catching fire

Recycling plants are hoarding millions of tons of plastic bottles, the Environmental Protection Agency says, with some part of a growing problem of toxic fires at these plants, according to data provided by environmental advocates. ‘environment. Critics say beverage companies should do more to make their products more recyclable.

The majority of fuel buildup at facilities is made of polyethylene terephthalate plastic, better known as PET, a clear, strong plastic typically used to make single-use beverage bottles, packaging, clothing and clothing. carpet. Most consumers believe this type of plastic can be recycled, but the majority are found in recycling facilities where experts say it is at risk of catching fire.

Stacks of plastic bottles are seen outside Ming’s Recycling.

Jeff Donlevy / Ming Recycling

The problem of PET waste has worsened because much of it is not recycled. In the United States, plastic bottles are sold to reprocessing plants where about 29% of them are recycled, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources. The rest end up in landfills or often accumulate until they can be sold and exported to other countries. Previously, the main buyer of PET plastic was China, but it banned the import of waste plastics in early 2018.

Another reason PET bottles are piling up is that many are made with colored dyes, most often green like in soda bottles, and use shrink-wrapped labels, destroying the plastic’s recyclability, experts say. .

“I’ve seen more fires in the last two years than I’ve ever seen,” Ryan Fogelman, a fire suppression contractor who tracks fires at recycling plants in the United States, told ABC News. United States. While the exact cause of the fires is unclear and can vary, experts say a buildup of battery-ignited plastics and other materials may be to blame.

Constant increase in the number of fires

More than 82 million metric tons of PET plastic are produced worldwide each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s more than 30 times the amount of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is currently about the size of Mexico.

Experts say the number of reported fires has risen steadily over the past five years and they believe this is due to buildup from a combination of combustible materials like paper and plastic, sparks from lithium-ion batteries disposal and rising temperatures as the climate warms.

Fogelman, who is part of a company that promotes fire prevention systems, began collecting data on fires at waste and recycling facilities in 2016 when he noticed a gap in data reporting on this type of fire. “There was absolutely no data anywhere,” he told ABC News, “and if you look at the United States, there’s no regulation.”

According to data from Fogelman, cited in an EPA report, 343 fires were reported at waste and recycling facilities in the United States and Canada in 2019, resulting in 49 injuries and two deaths.

That figure rose to 367 fires in the United States and Canada in 2021, Fogelman reported, resulting in 37 injuries and two deaths.

Recent fires at recycling plants around the world have been reported in Turkey, South Wales and Austria, as well as Northern California, New Mexico and the Bronx, where five firefighters were injured while putting out a fire in June 2019, according to ABC affiliate WABC in New York.

Jan Dell, a chemical engineer, former White House national climate adviser and founder of the nonprofit Last Beach Cleanup watchdog that tracks fires, said she noticed a lack of fire data at recycling facilities.

“I honestly can’t keep up, there are so many,” Dell told ABC News of the fires in recent years.

Plastic piles up

Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming’s recycling plant in Haywood, California, said that since the Chinese government banned plastic waste imports in 2018, these bottles have just been collected from reprocessing facilities or sent to landfills. “Americans don’t convert this material into new bottles, that doesn’t happen here,” he said.

PHOTO: Stacks of plastic bottles are seen outside Ming's Recycling.

Stacks of plastic bottles are seen outside Ming’s Recycling.

Jeff Donlevy / Ming Recycling

This is especially true with green-dyed waste, according to Dell.

“In other countries, beverage companies are voluntarily switching to clear PET because they know it’s actually recyclable,” she said.

South Korea passed a series of regulations in 2020 banning additive dyes or adhesive labels on plastic bottles to preserve plastic recyclability. Japan has adopted a similar practice since 2001, while France, the UK and other countries are following suit. The United States has not introduced legislation at the national level, although local communities and businesses are beginning to take action.

In July, The Coca-Cola Company announced the phasing out of green-tinted Sprite PET bottles, among other soft drinks.

“Coca-Cola North America’s entire green plastics portfolio, including packaging from Fresca, Seagram’s and Mello Yello, will transition to clear PET in the coming months,” the company said in a statement.

This follows the company’s commitment in February to make 25% of its packaging reusable by 2030.

PHOTO: A forklift transports a bale of plastic bottles at Ming's Recycling.

A forklift transports a bale of plastic bottles to Ming’s Recycling.

Ming’s recycling

Kasey Lovett, senior director of communications for the American Beverage Association, praised the US beverage industry’s efforts to design recyclable bottles.

“American beverage companies are always exploring innovative ways to create circularity for our bottles,” Lovett said in a statement to ABC News.

But Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, said plastic bottles in the United States are often not recycled into new ones. According to the National Association for PET Container Resources 2018 Recycling Activity Report, less than 10% of PET bottles are recycled into new food and beverage containers.

Enck says that most often, PET plastics are recycled for one-time uses such as plastic decking or clothing. She also noted that green bottles are still used for many popular soft drinks.

California recently passed a sweeping single-use plastic law that requires 30% of plastic bought and sold in California to be recyclable by 2028 and imposes a corporate liability system, the first law of its kind in the United States. .

State Senator Ben Allen, who drafted the law and chairs the state committee on environmental quality, told ABC News, “Our idea is that we put the responsibility on the producers, the people who have the most skin in the game, to create more sustainable packaging.”

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