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Recycling company warns people not to recycle lithium-ion batteries after multiple plant fires

Plants take paper, bottles, and cans. As one person put it: "When in doubt, throw it out."

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — It was another close call for TFC Recycling this week. Firefighters rushed to put out a large fire at its Chesapeake recycling plant on Tuesday.

TFC leaders said it’s their fourth recycling-related fire this year. The cause? A specific battery that people keep throwing into their recycling bins.

“It was frightening. I thought we were going to lose the whole building,” said TFC COO Paul Stacharczyk.

Chesapeake firefighters quickly got the fire under control, but once the smoke settled, Stacharczyk said it looks like a lithium-ion battery caused the mess.

“We continue to get materials that we should not be getting,” Stacharczyk said.

It’s a culprit that staff is unfortunately all-too-familiar with.

“Lithium batteries are very hard to extinguish,” said TFC Education Outreach Coordinator Kathy Russell.

Just last month, the same jarring scene.

“We’ve had two plant fires, one in April, one in May and those were determined to be lithium batteries,” Russell said.

They’ve also lost two recycling trucks since December because of the batteries. Russell said the vehicles cost about $400,000 apiece.

“Our truck was going through a neighborhood in Virginia Beach,” Russell said. “And all of a sudden, we had an explosion.”

TFC staff said lithium-ion batteries are commonly found in electronics like laptops, cell phones, and tablets.

“If it is a modern device and it is chargeable, it probably has a lithium-ion battery in it,” Stacharczyk said.

Here’s what TFC said you can’t recycle: hazardous materials like gas tanks, paint or aerosol cans, plastic bags, Styrofoam, food, liquids, cords, or ropes.

But unfortunately, all of these items keep popping up at the plant.

"We take papers, bottles, cans,” Russell said. “I always say, 'When in doubt, throw it out.'”

If you can’t take it there, then where? Russell said every city should have a place for hazardous materials.

“Go to your city's website, find when the household hazardous days are, or the drop off places, and correctly put them into the right place,” Russell said.

Part of TFC’s plant is still down. While that’s hurting production, Stacharczyk is just grateful his employees are safe.

“At an event like this, where actually I consider us kind of fortunate, because this could have been a lot worse,” Stacharczyk said.

The City of Suffolk is holding a recycle drive this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Public Works Operations center on Carolina Road. People can safely get rid of household hazardous waste materials like batteries, electronics, gasoline, and pesticides.

Information on other cities' hazardous item dropoffs: