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May 15 - Industry experts have warned that disposable e-cigarettes were responsible for a sharp increase in fires at recycling plants last year, increasing the risk of the blazes releasing toxic fumes and polluting the air, according to reports.
Recycling companies are now dealing with so many e-cigarettes that they are struggling to insure their facilities. Some companies are now using artificial intelligence to detect e-cigarettes and their lithium-ion batteries, and install thermal imagers and automatic foam ejectors.
Hazardous materials processed by waste and recycling plants mean they can cause fires similar to the Bradford tyre fire in 2020, which burned for a week, forced the closure of 20 schools and required every firefighter in West Yorkshire to be involved.
Around 1.3 million single-use e-cigarettes are now thrown away every week in the UK - an alarming increase since they were first sold in 2019 - and many of them end up at the roadside or in general waste. They contain lithium-ion batteries, which can easily catch fire if cracked, and some e-cigarette users have suffered life-changing injuries after their batteries exploded.
Research by Material Focus, a nonprofit organization that campaigns to recycle electronics, found that more than 700 fires at garbage trucks and recycling centers were caused by batteries that had been dumped in general waste.
Grundon recyles about 80,000 tonnes of household and municipal waste a year, and there has been an increase in the number of single-use e-cigarettes collected by road sweepers, whose round brushes often collect leaves and stones.
"They're sold as disposable products, so people just throw them on the floor." Says Owen George, a division manager at Grundon. "We didn't see anything about a year ago, but now they're everywhere. We might pick 100 to 150 in an eight-hour shift. They're just the ones we catch."
What they don't catch ends up in the non-recyclable waste stream with items like Pringles cans, plastic wrappers and disposable coffee cups. These are chopped up and packed into bales, a process that turns on lithium-ion batteries, which can then easily catch fire. Grundon has had three or four fires in one location in the past year alone.
"We've managed to eliminate them, but the frequency is really increasing," George said. "It's not just us -- it's affecting everyone in the industry."
Grundon installed about ￡250,000 worth of fire detection equipment at each of its facilities. "We have thermal imaging cameras and in some places we have automatic artillery that can lock on to the source of the fire and extinguish it with water and foam."
Insurance companies have been reluctant to cover the waste industry because of the fire risk, premiums are growing and expensive fire safety systems are now needed. Artificial intelligence is another option.
Around 70% of UK recycling facilities now use AI developed by Greyparrot.
We have a box with a camera in it, and we take continuous images of the waste stream, and we use AI to detect and analyze those images, says Mikela Druckman, CEO of Greyparrot.
The system can identify 67 types of materials and then sort them - steel can be picked up magnetically, while lighter PET plastic bottles can be blown away with a burst of air.
"We are working on several projects, mainly in Austria, but also now in the UK, where we are identifying batteries in the waste stream." "Druckman said.
Justin Guest, co-founder of Archipelago Eco, which invests in recycling technology, said banning e-cigarettes would be a blunt instrument, adding: It's not going to solve the problem because it's not just e-cigarettes - a lot of them have battery things in them now. People get things all the time and throw them away.
"There's going to be some other consumer boom, and these materials are always going to go into the waste stream. So you need safeguards, you need technology to deal with that."
About 138 million single-use e-cigarettes are now sold in the UK each year, containing enough lithium to power about 1,200 electric car batteries.