Richmond officials found in 2020 that the warehouses exhibited fire hazards and lacked sprinkler systems. | Courtesy of city of Richmond

The multi-day blaze at a site storing processed recycled plastics has raised concerns about asbestos, toxic substances and why there was so much plastic kept there in the first place.

According to an Associated Press story, the fire at the 14-acre former factory site in Richmond, Ind. took days to contain and prompted evacuation orders. Debris from the site later tested positive for asbestos. 

It was not clear what resin types were involved, but a Guardian story quoted Fire Chief Tim Brown, who said, “There’s plastics inside buildings, there’s plastics outside buildings, there’s plastics in semi trailers that are throughout the grounds here at the complex, so we’re dealing with many types of plastics. It’s very much a mess.” 

Seth Smith, owner of My Way Trading, the business housed by the facility, had previously been served a cleanup order in 2020, another Associated Press story reported, and been banned from accepting more plastic, though he was allowed to keep selling what he had on hand. The DAK Americas PET recycling facility in Richmond is not connected to My Way Trading, according to a DAK Americas spokesman.

Brown noted there were six buildings packed with material “floor to ceiling and wall to wall.”

“I have no idea where it all came from,” Brown said. “The owner has brought it all in and just kind of lost control of it.” 

The AP found that in 2019, Smith told the city’s Unsafe Building Commission that he sells scrap materials to 29 countries. In 2020, the city found the warehouses were missing fire sprinklers, there were fire hazards in the stacks of plastics, the roof had holes and there were no utilities.

Smith also told the commission he’s been in business since 1987, and “it has got out of control, but now I have a plan.” 

Richmond officials said they feel Smith is at fault for the fire. Residents reported thick smoke and the acrid scent of burning plastics for days. The AP talked to a nearby resident, Tonja Thompson, who said the house smelled like plastic despite shut windows and if you stepped outside, “it was just like you were eating plastic.” 

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