The Hazardous Waste Section of the Commonwealth Department of the Environment commissioned this report to gain greater insight into the problem of waste fires in Australia.
This report aims to understand the risks associated with waste fires in Australia to better examine how the potential impacts of these fires can be minimised. In this report we show that waste fires pose a serious risk to people, the environment and the economy. Currently, the issue of waste fires is poorly understood, with limited information on, the causes, number of incidences, risks location and their impact on society, the environment and the economy within Australia. We show that there is a growing need to take waste fires seriously with regular reporting, risk management strategies and effective guidelines to prevent both the occurrence and severity of future waste fires. In particular, we recommend that all States in Australia be compelled to keep an accurate record of the occurrence and size of waste fires as they occur and that these statistics be regularly reviewed to identify the potential for emerging risks (e.g. lithium battery fires).
Waste fires can arise across all stages of the waste management chain (both publically- and privately-owned), including waste collection, transport, transfer stations, recycling and disposal at landfill (whether hazardous, mixed or inert). The source of combustible material also varies greatly and includes tyres, used oils, green waste, wood waste, solvents, batteries, municipal solid waste and so on. Fires therefore have the potential to cause significant harm to people and the environment through the release of hazardous chemicals to the atmosphere and ground water supplies.
The economic costs of waste fires can be significant. Preventing and preparing for waste fires offers the best defence against the risk of injury, death, property damage, environmental degradation and economic loss. Research has shown the cost of prevention is less expensive than the cost of fighting waste fires and clean-up costs after a fire has occurred. The direct economic costs incurred by waste fires include: property damage, fire-fighting personnel time, fire-fighting consumables and equipment, waste facility downtime, environmental clean-up costs contaminated water supplies and long-term health effects. Indirect costs include traffic delays, public transport disruption, disruption to daily working schedules and lower real-estate values. Waste fires burn for extended periods, sometimes days and weeks, and can take significant resources to extinguish. Fire fighting personnel who are engaged in extinguishing these fires are then not available to respond to fire emergencies occurring elsewhere. This has the effect of increasing response times and increasing fire risks elsewhere in the region.
Waste fires, when they occur, receive substantial media attention with newspaper headlines and images designed to grab public attention. The siting of landfills is also a controversial subject. Homeowners and business owners often resist the siting of landfills in their areas due to the perception that these facilities will lead to noxious fumes, health effects and have adverse influences on property values. Despite the immediate attention that waste fires often receive by the media, they remain a dangerous threat to people, the environment and society.
The targeted focus of this report means the findings are not a comprehensive representation of all waste-related fires in the last five years. However, this report usefully identifies the characteristics of the issues and trends in the international literature, synthesises available information to date and provides a summary of the key sources of waste fire in Australia. Therefore the report provides a basis for illustrating the key dimensions of the issue and a framework for better characterising the issues in future.
This report sets out:
- the methodology used in the research undertaken;
- the results, including special mention of key issues and case studies;
- recommendations for future work; and
- an outline of the sources used.