WATCH: Video shows recycling center explosion in GR

Surveillance video of an explosion at a recycling center in Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was just before 8 a.m. Thursday and employees at the Kent County Recycling & Education Center were doing what they do every day — keeping 150 tons of trash out of the landfills.

Who knew the job could be dangerous. But video from inside the facility on Wealthy Street SW in Grand Rapids shows what happened just as a worker is walking back to a compactor used to crush and bail recyclables.

“And then it goes,” said plant manager Nic VanderVinne as the video shows a sudden bright flash, signaling an explosion. It produced a concussion he says felt like a thump in the chest.

“And everything you’re seeing there is all the cans, the residue, it all came right out the top of the baler,” said VanderVinne as the video shows debris, including tin cans, flying up to up to the ceiling and crashing back to the floor.

Debris litters the floor following an explosion at a recycling center in Grand Rapids. (Kent County Department of Public Works)

The worker was shaken but OK after a close call that could have been avoided.

Three small, camp stove style propane tanks were found in the bail. Workers look for items that are not supposed to go through the compacting process, but the smaller bottles often are hidden by other debris on the conveyor belt.

The compactor crushed the bottles. Once cracked open, the left over gas inside was released. A small spark from the machinery or another source ignited the gas.

Grand Rapids fire officials are using the close call as a way to warn people about the danger of placing even small propane tanks in the recycle bin.

Grand Rapids
The remnants of three canister that exploded at a recycling center in Grand Rapids. (Kent County Department of Public Works)

“People think that these tanks are empty when they’re discarding them, but improper disposal is putting these people at risk here at the recycling facility,” said Grand Rapid Fire Department Lt. Bill Smith. “If somebody is in the wrong place at the wrong time when one of these things go off, they’re going to get hurt or worse.”

The problem not only creates danger for workers, it is costing tax payer dollars. The machine where the explosion occurred is only a month old.

“We just spent $600,000 replacing it. And a year ago, we had $90,000 in damage when we had a similar explosion,” said Kent County Public Works Director Dar Baas.

Kent County Recycling & Education Center
Firefighters respond to an explosion at a recycling center in Grand Rapids. (Kent County Department of Public Works)

The same thing happened nearly a year ago to the day.

Officials think the problem may have something to do with the time of the year, as campers are starting sorting through their empty propane bottles.

“You may not think about throwing that one pound cylinder out, but it could very easily cost someone their life,” said VanderVinne.

County officials say although the cylinders are considered disposable, they are not recyclable. People can safely dispose of the containers at any of the following locations:

  • South Kent Recycling & Waste Center, 10300 South Kent Drive, Byron Center
  • North Kent Recycling & Waste Center, 2908 Ten Mile Road, Rockford
  • Any Kent County SafeChem household hazardous waste drop-off center listed online.