Over 1,200 battery fires in bin lorries and waste sites across the UK in last year

Media Release, 10th May 2024

  • Battery fires in bin lorries and at waste sites in the UK have reached an all time high – over 1,200 in the last year, an increase of 71% from 700 in 2022
  • 1.6bn batteries were thrown away in the last year, over 3,000 a minute – including over 1.1bn electricals containing hidden lithium-ion batteries
  • National Fire Chiefs Council says “fires involving lithium-ion batteries are a disaster waiting to happen”
  • Battery fires cause air pollution levels to spike in local areas, breaking WHO limits, affecting the health of local communities
  • Cost impact of battery waste fires could also be significant – Zurich UK has seen some insurance claims range up to £20 million 

A new “Stop Battery Fires campaign” from Recycle Your Electricals and the National Fire Chiefs Council is raising awareness of the importance of electricals and battery recycling as new research shows lithium-ion batteries thrown in household rubbish bins have led to over 1,200 fires in the waste system in the last 12 months, compared to 700 in 2022. A survey of local authorities across the UK has also found that 94% of them said that fires caused by batteries in the waste stream were an increasing challenge.  

With the steep rise in the number of portable electrical items containing lithium-ion batteries comes significant fire risk if they are binned instead of being recycled. With billions of electrical items now containing lithium-ion batteries, Phil Clark from the National Fire Chiefs Council said that: “Fires involving the incorrect disposal of lithium-ion batteries are a disaster waiting to happen. Fire services are seeing an increasing number of incidents, but they are preventable by correctly and carefully disposing of electricals.”

Lithium-ion batteries are hidden inside many everyday household electricals, from laptops, mobile phones and tablets, to electric toothbrushes, vapes and earpods. These batteries can become crushed or damaged in bin lorries or waste sites if they aren’t recycled and can lead to fires at waste centres and in bin lorries across the UK. When crushed or damaged lIthium-ion batteries can be dangerous to the public, waste operators and firefighters as they cause fires that are especially challenging to tackle. They can lead to explosions and chemical exposure, but they create their own oxygen, which means they can keep reigniting, prolonging incidents with smoke and fumes affecting neighbouring areas and communities for long periods of time of up to a week.

New research from Recycle Your Electricals, conducted by Opinium, shows that over 1.1bn electricals and 449. 9m loose batteries were binned in the last year. UK adults admitted that on average they’d binned at least 24 batteries, including fifteen electricals containing batteries and 9 loose batteries. This included 260m vapes. Nearly half of UK adults did not know or hadn’t heard that electrical items containing chargeable built-in batteries can catch fire if crushed or damaged.

Mark Andrews, Waste and Recycling Fires Lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council, explains what a challenge these fires present and the impact this is having on our fire services. “Fires involving waste have always been challenging but lithium-ion batteries add significantly to this by creating unknown and unpredictable risks. These fires can be explosive and spread rapidly with the risk of reignition and toxic gasses a risk to firefighters. These incidents also tie up large numbers of finite fire service resources and firefighters to fully control and extinguish the fire creating further risks to the community.”

Scott Butler, Executive Director of Recycle Your Electricals, wants people to consider the consequences of binning electricals and batteries given that these destructive and costly fires can be easily avoided. “With more and more products containing lithium-ion batteries, and battery fires on the rise, it’s vital that we stop these fires and reduce the air pollution impact that they have on our local communities and the dangers they present to fire fighters and waste officers.  We are also throwing away some of the most precious materials on the planet which are vital to our economy.  We are calling on everyone to make sure that they never bin and always recycle their electricals and their batteries. Just search recycle your electricals to find your nearest drop off point.”   

The air pollution impact from waste fires has also a significant impact on local communities.  Professor Frank Kelly from the Faculty of Medicine, School of Public Health at Imperial College London has found that: “Waste fires can cause significant spikes in air pollution. Our analysis of fires at waste sites in the very densely populated areas of Herne Hill and Brentford showed that they contributed to the local pollution burden with the fire in Herne Hill, clearly leading to exceedances in the WHO health based guideline for PM2.5. This meant that thousands of residents in the area were affected, and rightly advised to close windows. Some were unable to leave their homes. The health impacts of waste fires, including respiratory issues, are of great concern, and we would advise residents to avoid opening windows at all costs while local air pollution concentrations are elevated and that everyone should wear a mask if they absolutely must venture outside while the fire is burning. The status of local air quality can be checked on www.londonair.org.uk.”

The financial costs of battery fires are also significant, James Nicholson, Chief Claims Officer at Zurich UK, states: “Lithium battery related fires have become a real concern over recent years, as each year we’re seeing more and more, whether that’s in bin lorries or waste centres. Not only can they cause a considerable amount of damage – Zurich UK has seen some cases cost in the region of up to £20 million – but they can also cause a lot of upheaval while damage is repaired.

One fire in Herne Hill, South London, which took 5 hours to get under control and burned for 4 days, required 15 fire engines and roughly 100 firefighters to attend the scene as well as round-the-clock firefighting from London Fire Brigade. Similarly, Hertfordshire Fire Service reported a recent waste fire, where lithium-ion batteries were suspected to have played a significant contributory role, which required over 24 hours of fire service resources. 

Recycle Your Electricals is helping make recycling electricals and batteries easier than ever – so more of these fires can be prevented. Batteries, of all kinds, whether loose or hidden in our electricals – should never be binned, always recycled.  If possible, remove batteries from electricals and recycle the batteries and electricals separately at your local recycling centre, supermarket or other battery recycling point.  If you can’t remove the batteries, then always recycle your electricals at your nearest electrical recycling point. You can find your nearest electrical and battery recycling point via the Recycle Your Electricals Postcode Locator.

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Further quotes:

Bethan Taylor-Swaine, a resident in Brixton during the Herne Hill battery waste fire, describes the impact the fire had on her family and the community. “We lived within half a mile of the scene and the smoke was so bad we were advised to close our windows and stay indoors for the duration of the fire – which was four days in the middle of a heatwave! My daughter suffered from breathing issues and a cough during this time – it got so bad we visited a walk-in centre and eventually A&E. In the end, so that our daughter and dog could enjoy time outside, we decided to leave the area and stay with family for a few days.

James Bull, Station Commander for Hertfordshire Fire Service, has first hand experience of the damage a lithium-ion battery can create. “You only have to view live footage of a Li-Ion battery fire to see the scarily rapid rate of development which makes these incidents particularly hazardous and volatile. They can take many fire service resources to tackle them and they are notoriously difficult to extinguish given that the flame heat release rate from a lithium-ion battery fire can be 7 times more intense than a traditional flame”.

Cllr Jim Dickson, Herne Hill Ward & Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Lambeth, South London said:I saw with my own eyes how the fire in Herne Hill and Brixton had a devastating impact on the local community, with plumes of dark acrid smoke covering the neighbourhood for many days. We were all concerned about the length of time that the fire burned for and how this affected the local community, especially given how some residents were forced to move out of the area because of the impact this had on their health and due to the fact they were unable to go outside during a national heatwave.  Fires like these could be so easily prevented by ensuring that batteries are recycled, which is why Lambeth Council is supporting this campaign – never bin your batteries, always recycle.”

Content available: Images and video, battery fires in waste sites and bin lorries, fire fighter and local resident case studies, wider electricals recycling tips

For more information:

For media enquiries please contact materialfocus@welcometoshook.com or kate@materialfocus.org.uk mobile 07714 708416

Notes to Editors:

Report comprises:

  • Opinium research conducted for Material Focus Opinium Research conducted a study from 2nd to 5th April 2024, project number UK25722, focused on the recycling of batteries. A sample of 4,000 UK adults was selected to ensure a representative distribution across key demographic factors such as age, gender, region, and socio-economic status.
  • Recycling information provided by Material Focus 

For more details on how your organisation can get involved and raise awareness of battery recycling, please email hello@materialfocus.org.uk.

About Material Focus

Material Focus is a not-for-profit organisation whose goal is to stop the nation throwing away or hoarding all their old, small electricals. Material Focus is delivering the UK-wide Recycle Your Electricals campaign. The campaign is revealing the value hidden in electricals and is making it easier for us all to recycle and reuse the small electricals we no longer need by providing more recycling points as well as providing practical information on how households can reuse and recycle.

The campaign is funded by producers of electrical appliances which pays for a range of activities, including communications, behaviour change activities, increased recycling projects and research. Ultimately the aim is to support actions that will help the UK increase the levels of reuse and recycling of waste electricals.

About the National Fire Chiefs Council

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) is an independent membership association and the professional voice of the UK Fire and Rescue Service. We support fire and rescue services to continually improve, helping them to save lives and keep their local communities safe.

We are a charity and a membership association supporting and representing the UK Fire and Rescue Service. Founded in 1941, NFCC was established as a company and charity in 1998 as The Chief Fire Officers’ Association, transforming into the NFCC in 2017. 

Battery Fire research with local authorities methodology

Material Focus sent a survey to local authorities across the UK. Material Focus asked local authorities if they had experienced any fires caused by crushed or damaged batteries in the waste stream and any further details they could give. 77 local authorities responded to the survey, stating that 242 fires had occurred.  This equates to an average of 3.14 fires per local authority area.  This number was then averaged across the 382 local authorities in the UK to over 1,200 fires. Out of the 53 areas who responded to the detailed survey, 50 of those surveyed said that fires are increasing, equalling 94%.   

About the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College London

The Environmental Research Group is part of Imperial’s School of Public Health and is a leading provider of air quality information and research in the UK, combining air pollution science, toxicology and epidemiology to determine the impacts of air pollution on health and the role specific pollutants play in causing disease and deaths. They work closely with those responsible for air quality management supporting policies and actions to minimise the impact of air pollution on health and established the London Air Quality Network – and Breathe London Programme – which continuously monitors air pollution levels at sites across London.


Imperial College Research methodology 

To examine the possible impact of these fires on local air quality all available air pollution data in London was assessed and sites local to the fires were selected from the available PM2.5 data.  Using this approach it was found that a radius of 3 km from each fire was an appropriate distance to consider when looking for signals from the plumes from these fires. Two wider radii were assessed (5 km and 8 km) but these were found not to contain any clearly identifiable potential fire event signals. 

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