Non-recyclable causes fire at Chittenden County recycling facility

Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger
A truck dumps recyclables onto the tip floor of the Chittenden Solid Waste District’s recycling facility in Williston. The tip floor is where a fire broke out last Monday evening.

By ELIZABETH GRIBKOFF
VTDigger.org

A fire at Chittenden Solid Waste District’s recycling facility last week highlights the dangers of improper recycling, officials say.

The fire started at around 5 p.m. on July 30 in a pile of material on the tip floor — where recyclables are “tipped” out of trucks to be sorted — of the district’s material recovery facility in Williston, said Jonny Finity, communications manager for the district. The facility – referred to as the “MRF” – sorts most of northern Vermont’s single stream, or “blue bin,” recyclables.

Although no staff were present at the facility, the alarm system alerted the local fire department, which put out the fire by 6 p.m., Finity said. The fire damaged an exterior wall of the building, but did not create other noticeable damage, he said. The fire department turned off the power until noon the following Wednesday, when operations resumed.

Finity said the district cannot determine what in the pile of recyclables caused the fire, but said “batteries are a likely suspect.” He noted that lithium batteries have caused fires at the facility before. “We cannot 100 percent control what people put in their recycling,” he said.

Problem recyclers fall into two categories, Finity said. “Some people don’t care at all,” he explained. Others – dubbed “wishful recyclers” by the district — put items like pizza-stained cardboard boxes or pots and pans into the blue bins, hoping the facility can recycle them.

The district has been working with Casella, which operates the MRF, and the Agency of Natural Resources to better educate residents about what can and cannot go into the blue bins, Finity said.

The new campaign will focus on the “core items” — containers, paper and cardboard — that the district accepts, he said. “When other items are placed in a recycling bin, it not only makes the system less efficient, it endangers the workers that help to sort recyclables,” a district press release notes.

In addition to not accepting potentially dangerous items such as chemical containers, the MRF cannot recycle clothing, Styrofoam, plastic bags or coffee cups. Other materials including batteries, tires and electronics are handled in separate facilities.

Recently, high levels of contamination of recyclables shipped to China caused the country to ban 24 kinds of waste, which has wreaked havoc on the global recycling market. The Chittenden MRF has raised fees in response to a glutted market for recycled paper, which makes up 40 percent by weight of the district’s recyclables.

“The stuff you put in your recycling bin doesn’t just disappear,” Finity noted.

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