As the fire at an Indiana plastics-recycling storage facility burned over several days and officials scrambled to calm evacuated residents and measure air quality, larger safety questions emerged across a nation that relies on recycling to help offset the impact of teeming landfills and littered waterways.
Authorities in the eastern part of the state on Sunday finally lifted a dayslong evacuation order after it was determined immediate environmental concerns related to the fire had passed.
But the man-made disaster had already done its part, leaving many wondering if recycling centers — challenging to regulate because they range from small community-led efforts to major industrial facilities — are as safe as Americans think they are?
Public health experts told MarketWatch the nation needs to take a harder look at how we store and dispose of chemicals-heavy plastics in particular, along with other recycled materials that can act as a tinderbox in certain conditions. It may be a wakeup call to the scores of Americans who embrace recycling as one of the longest-tested and straightforward solutions to help the environment. What happens after recyclable materials leave the home can be quite another story, however.
Read: Recycling is confusing — how to be smarter about all that takeout plastic
Worker safety in the handling of large recycling machinery remains a priority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies, but less scrutiny may be given to the emissions those workers breathe in, and in the case of the Indiana emergency, what pollution community members near a recycling center may be exposed to.
“Any company, regardless of its intentions, must be held accountable for regulations, not only for the safety of its employees, but for the communities around it,” Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonologist, who is the national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told MarketWatch.
“This [Indiana crisis] is alarming — a good deed [such as recycling] undone by the consequences of not having sound safety precautions,” said Galiatsatos, who is also an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and helps lead community engagement for the Baltimore Breathe Center.
As for the fire in Richmond, Ind., a college town and county seat of about 35,000 people near the Ohio border, the city’s fire chief, Tim Brown, made clear that there were known code violations by the operator of the former factory that had been turned into plastics storage for recycling or resale. This dangerous fire was a matter of “when, not if,” Brown said in the initial hours that the fire, whose origin is not yet known, burned.
The city of Richmond’s official site about the disaster described the fire as initially impacting “two warehouses containing large amounts of chipped, shredded and bulk recycled plastic, [which] caught fire.” The site does offer cleanup help advice.
Brown, the fire chief, reported that just over 13 of the 14 acres which made up the recycling facility’s property had burned, according to nearby Dayton, Ohio, station WDTN. Brown told reporters the six buildings at the site of the fire were full of plastic from “floor to ceiling, wall to wall,” along with several full semi-trailers. He said Sunday that fire fighters would continue to monitor for flare-ups, according to the Associated Press.
Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said the owner of the buildings has ignored citations that dinged his operation for code violations, and the city has continued to go through steps to get the owner to clean up the property, including preventing the operator from taking on additional plastic.
“We just wish the property owner and the business owner would’ve taken this more serious from day one,” Snow said, according to the report out of Dayton, which cited sister station WXIN. “This person has been negligent and irresponsible, and it’s led to putting a lot of people in danger,” the mayor added.
But some environmental groups say lax enforcement puts citizens at risk.
“Indiana is already top in the nation for water and air quality violations, but the consequences are too negligible here for industry to adhere to the laws,” said Susan Thomas, communications director at Just Transition Northwest Indiana, a climate justice group based in the state.
“We need real solutions to the climate crisis, not more false ones that shield chronic polluters from justice,” she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had collected debris samples from the Richmond fire and searched nearby grounds for any debris, which will be sampled for asbestos given the age of the buildings housing the recycling facility. Residents have been warned not to touch or mow over debris until the sample results are available. Testing was also carried out on the Ohio side of the border.
No doubt, the catastrophe had impacted daily life. Wayne County, Ind., health department officials and fire-safety officials told residents to shelter in place and reduce outdoor activity if they even smelled smoke. According to the health department’s help line, symptoms that may be related to breathing smoke include repeated coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, nausea or lightheadedness.
Any safer than a landfill?
When a lens on recycling is widened, it comes to light that how facilities handle their plastic and other materials may not involve much more care than that given to chemical-emitting plastic left to break down in a landfill, say the concerned public health officials.
Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S., only 5%-6%, or about two million tons, is recycled, according to a report conducted by the environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. About 85% went to landfills, and 10% was incinerated. The rate of plastic recycling has decreased since 2018, when it was at 8.7%, per the study.
Generally speaking, when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk they will have a toxic effect on organisms, says the environmental arm of the United Nations. The larger the number of potentially affected species and ecological functions, the more likely it is that toxic effects will occur.
And although the conditions of the Indiana fire differ from those experienced earlier this year when a Norfolk Southern Corp. NSC,
Now, add in Richmond. The public, at large, is increasingly wondering if officials are doing their job to prevent such disasters, and whether the full extent of chemical exposure is known.
“This [fire in Indiana] overlaps in a general sense the chemical safety question raised by the Ohio derailment — and it shouldn’t have just been raised by that one event, but that certainly brought it into focus,” said Dr. Peter Orris, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois – Chicago.
Orris said lasting solutions pushing awareness and safety around the storage and transportation of chemicals and chemical-based plastic must span political differences over the reach of regulation. He recalled a time just after the 9/11 terror attacks when a fresh look at the transportation of toxic chemicals and the storage and shipment of ammonia and other substances that can have nefarious uses in the wrong hands drew support from unusual partners.
“Shortly after 9/11 a rather broad coalition, including environmental interests such as Greenpeace, and consumer groups, with congressional support, alongside Homeland Security all pushed a model bill about where and how you could transport toxic chemicals, especially going through populated areas,” he said. “Dealing with new concerns around chemicals and recycling plastic may require the same breadth of interests.”
Already, the Biden administration has shown the will to target chemical exposure in U.S. water. Earlier this year, the EPA moved to require near-zero levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, part of a classification of chemicals known as PFAS, and also called “forever chemicals” due to how long they persist in the environment. Both the chemical companies and their trade groups have pushed their own steps toward reducing risk, they say. Exposure to some of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, as well as asthma and other health effects.
Read more: Cancer-linked PFAS — known as ‘forever chemicals’ — could be banned in drinking water for first time
And, Orris stressed, regulating recycling with a one-size-fits-all approach may not work.
Surprisingly, it can be the smaller recycling facilities that take bigger steps in curbing emissions than their larger counterparts. Orris in recent years reported on efforts of a San Francisco recycling plant that made emissions reduction a priority, including by banning incineration. The same research trip turned up issues with a Los Angeles-area plant, exposing “real problems with its policies and procedures beginning with the neighborhood smell from organic materials to other issues with toxins.”
How can plastic be so dangerous?
Specifically, the chemicals that help fortify plastic for its many uses present their own unique conditions.
As plastic is heated at high temperatures, melted and reformed into small pellets, it emits toxic chemicals and particulate matter, including volatile gases and fly ash, into the air, which pose threats to health and the local environment, says a Human Rights Watch paper, citing environmental engineering research. When plastic is recycled into pellets for future use, its toxic chemical additives are carried over to the new products. Plus, the recycling process can generate new toxic chemicals, like dioxins, if plastics are not heated at a high enough temperature.
There are other concerns. Plastic melting facilities can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carcinogens, which in higher concentrations can pollute air both inside facilities and in areas near recycling facilities.
“Plastics, the way they burn, put out dangerous toxins. And plastic can create its own unique chemistry even when it comes into interaction with benign chemicals,” said Galiatsatos of Johns Hopkins.
“There are the lung issues from people breathing in these chemicals and the toxins associated with them. But there is more: systemic inflation from breathing in chemicals, and that can lead to heart disease,” he said.
“I wish we would pay the same amount of attention to plastics, their recycling and their disposal, as we do with sewer systems. When was the last time we heard of a waste system-based cholera outbreak in the U.S.?” he asked rhetorically. “Exactly. That we care about. Yet plastics, especially the burning of chemicals, we treat too lightly.”