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Recycling facility fire sparks warnings about improperly discarded batteries

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Tossed-out batteries are being blamed for a fire at a recycling plant.

The fire was big enough to force all the workers out and shut down the near west side facility Tuesday morning.

“It was very scary for, you know, not only me, but for our team for sure,” said Republic Services operations manager Rick Erskine.

Erskine saw flames, smoke and Indianapolis firefighters as he rolled up to the Republic Services recycling facility.

“First thing I asked was, ‘Is everybody safe? Is everybody at the meeting places?’” remembered Erskine. “She informed me that they were besides the maintenance person that was still in the building, so I called him right away for that, on the way here.”

Fortunately, everyone got out in time. The facility though is now closed because of all the damage.

The flames, Erskine says, were sparked by broken lithium-ion batteries hiding in the mounds of recycling cruising along a conveyor belt. It’s a problem a fire extinguisher can usually take care of, but not this time.

“We’ve had smaller fires with batteries, but nothing this big,” said Erskine. “This was a little bit bigger than a small fire.”

Rick says many people don’t understand the dangers of tossing any type of battery in recycle bins just because they see a recycling icon.

“A lot of the recycling we receive is mixed with, you know, paper products, cardboard, different plastics, so when that stuff breaks down and causes ignition, you know, it spreads fast,” said Erskine.

Rita Reith of the Indianapolis Fire Department is working with Republic Services to spread the message about what people need to stop doing.

“Don’t mix them in your trash, don’t mix them in your recyclables,” said Reith.

Instead, they’re asking us all to take them to places designed to handle battery recycling. Not doing so could endanger workers at facilities like these or yourself.

“Make sure you do your research, make sure you dispose of it properly, make sure you have that separate container and you know we’ll help keep places like this in business,” said Reith.

Republic Services offers educational materials on what can be recycled on its website. Energizer, the battery-maker, offers a tool to help people find somewhere to drop off the type of battery they no longer need.