Rumpke experiences uptick in lithium-ion battery fires

The company responds to the issue by further educating the community on how to properly recycle materials.

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August 20, 2018
Megan Smalley
Safety

The first full week of August, Rumpke Recycling experienced two fires at one of its facilities in a matter of 24 hours. In general, the Ohio-based company says it has experienced an uptick in fires in general the past two to three years.

“It seems like it’s been getting worse over the last couple of years,” says Brad Dunn, recycling manager at Rumpke for the Cincinnati market. “We’ve actually had to put in protocols to deal with [fires]. Really, the last two or three years, we’ve seen an increase.”

According to Rumpke, lithium ion batteries tend to be the top cause for the increase in fires. Also, propane tanks and aerosol cans that still contain liquid have caused issues. 

“[Fires have] been a growing problem since lithium-ion batteries have grown in popularity,” says Molly Yeager, corporate communications manager for the west area at Rumpke. “That’s where we saw the start of these fires. You now see lithium-ion batteries in everything from cellphones to laptops to children’s toys to yard equipment. People want to do the right thing; they hear they should be recycled. They know how to use curbside boxes, but that’s not the proper way to recycle these types of materials.” 

This past year, the company estimates it has had about six fires at its Cincinnati facility and seven fires at its Columbus, Ohio, facility. 

“The last two that we had were actually in one of our balers,” Dunn says. “The unfortunate thing is we’ve gotten really good at dealing with these fires, and that scares me. It scares me when we get good at something we shouldn’t know how to do.”

To address the uptick in fires, Rumpke invested in an automated water cannon for its tipping floor that releases 5,000 gallons per minute in an emergency. Dunn says this system works better than its older fire suppression system. 

“Our tipping floor is 40 feet high, so a fire suppression system you need to generate enough heat to set sprinklers off,” he says. “So that fire would have to be really big to set the sprinkler heads off. [The water cannons] are one of those things we looked at to combat that.” 

The company is also increasing its outreach to the community. Last summer, Rumpke increased awareness education in the community through an advertising campaign in Cincinnati on how to properly recycle lithium-ion batteries. 

“We’ve seen some decrease [in lithium-ion battery fires] since then, but with the lack of communication recently, specifically paid advertisements, we’re seeing upticks again,” Yeager says. “So, we’re starting a campaign again to hopefully bring it back down.” 

In addition to paid advertising, Yeager says Rumpke wants to make sure to communicate with customers via social media including Facebook and Twitter, as well as providing informational videos on YouTube on the topic. The company has an educational specialist who is working to share this message. 
Dunn adds that the company also encourages sales team members to educate customers in the sales process as a preventive measure. 

“We went through our route sheets and tried to identify any businesses that are our customers that may be putting flammable containers or material in,” he says. “Education of sales team is important – your sales team has to know what they’re talking about [with customers].” 

Last, the company is making sure it maintains a good relationship with local fire departments because of the increase in receiving flammable recyclables. Rumpke invites fire fighters out for tours of the facilities, so they understand the structure. 

“When we built this facility, I gave them a drawing of [it] to show every area we store materials, combustibles, electrical connections in case a big event, so they know what they’re dealing with,” he says of the Cincinnati facility. “The more information you can provide your fire department, it’s not going to hurt.”