Scrutiny after huge week-long fire
Representatives of the recycling industry have been quick to try to put some distance between their businesses and the Parkersburg site where a week-long industrial fire took place last month.
The Intercontinental Export Import operation at the former Ames Tool plant, an 11-acre warehousing site, caught fire Oct. 21 and the blaze was not extinguished until Oct. 29. Twenty fire departments responded.
The company, IEI, and several of its subsidiaries have been described as plastics recycling businesses. Material Safety Data Sheets submitted by IEI to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection — more than 500 pages — show that more than 10,000 tons of used plastics, ranging from ABS to nylon and injection molded rubber, were stored on the site.
The Association of Plastics Recyclers is a national trade association for companies in that business, and includes more than 100 member organizations, ranging from Nestle Foods to agriculture giant Conagra. John Standish, technical director for the association, said the IEI operation was not recycling in any ordinary sense.
“Plastics recycling is a modern, high-speed business, not a junk store,” he said. “This sounds like junk storage, just crazy, irresponsible.”
Plastics recycling is a consumer to processor system, he said, in which recyclables are collected at curbside or at drop-off depots, taken to a sorting facility, baled or bundled and sent to an end user which reprocesses the material into new goods.
“The processors will have a storage yard, with literally truckloads of plastic bales, but they don’t sit there very long,” Standish said. “For example, a PET (plastic drinks bottles) facility processes 5,000 to 10,000 pounds an hour, that’s about a truckload every four hours. The point is to have storage but keep things constantly moving so it doesn’t build up.”
The cause of the IEI fire hasn’t yet been established, but Standish said plastic by itself is difficult to ignite.
“Try taking an empty detergent bottle into your backyard and setting it on fire with a disposable lighter,” he said. “You’ll see.”
From examining reports of the fire, he said there must have been other chemicals on the site as an ignition source.
“Plastic recycling is a force for good,” he said. “I don’t want it to get a black eye from this.”
Rumpke is the curbside collection company in Marietta. Communications manager Jonathan Kissell said the company views its recycling operation as a partnership that embraces the entire system from consumers to end users.
“Rumpke collects the material and transports it to our recycling centers in Cincinnati or Columbus,” he said. “When they’re collected, the recyclables – glass, paper, plastic, for example — are mixed together. At the centers it’s sorted into separate categories, sort of like peeling an onion.”
After sorting, the material is bundled into bales weighing anywhere from 800 to 2,000 pounds and shipped to the end use facility, where it’s made into new products, he said.
“Our goal is to process recyclables and move them on a consistent basis. We always strive to move everything within a month of collecting it,” he said.
“We’ve been in the recycling business for a long time, we’re the largest in Ohio, and we work with long-term credible partners who we sell our materials to,” he said. “They are end users who we know will make quality products out of these materials.”
Rumpke has also had fires, Kissell said, usually involving trucks carrying materials that are contaminated with inappropriate discarded goods such as batteries.
Even dead batteries remain chemically reactive and are a fire threat when mixed in with other substances in trash and in recycling bins, he said. Rumpke warns its customers to keep batteries out of ordinary garbage and recycling, he said.
“There’s a very specific reason why we provide this guidance to residents, especially with the holiday season coming up and new electronic devices coming in to replace old ones, people getting rid of batteries,” he said.
Consumers who want to dispose of batteries correctly can contact their municipal solid waste departments for directions.
Recycling industry in the U.S.
¯ Pounds of plastic bottles recycled in 2015: 3 billion pounds.
¯ Rate of recycling: 31.8 percent.
Source: Association of Plastic Recyclers.