Fact check: Melted traffic lights, recycling bins, street signs were not caused by heat waves

A thermometer sign displays a temperature of 117 degrees Fahrenheit on June 15, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Caitlin O'Hara, Getty Images)

The claim: Heat waves have melted trash cans, tires, street lights and other objects

A black plastic lid melts down the side of a dumpster, Salvador Dali-style. The wings of a ceiling fan droop toward the floor like a wilted flower. The rubber of a tire seems to drip down its hub.

These images are part of a viral Facebook post that claims to show the damage heat waves can do. As the Western U.S. continues to simmer under record high temperatures, over 80,000 users have shared the photos, which also made their way to Twitter.

“First big heat wave of 2021 arrived this weekend. This is damage done in the past by a heat wave. Enjoy whatever cold places you live because this ain’t for the faint of heart. #Arizonalife,” the creator of the post wrote.

But did a heat wave really cause the damage in the photos?

USA TODAY found that several of the photos actually show damage from fires or long-term exposure to dust and other weather conditions, not from heat waves. And the photos were taken from all over the world, not just Arizona, as the hashtag implied.

“I live here in Arizona and it’s always a common topic, the heat, it’s part of our life,” Kaitlyn Isaacson, the creator of the post, said in a comment to USA TODAY. “So it’s fun to make a joke or post about it.”

Several photos show result of fires, not heat waves

One photo shows a traffic light whose hooded covers have melted over its red, yellow and green bulbs.  After the same claim circulated on Twitter in June 2019, PesaCheck, Africa’s largest indigenous fact-check network, reported a YouTube video from July 2013 shows that the traffic light melted after a car hit the light’s pole and caught fire in Kuwait.

Another of the photos, first posted on Reddit in 2017, shows a melted plastic fence. However, Buzzfeed, which originally posted the photo in an article titled “It’s So Hot In Arizona Right Now That Everything Is Literally Melting” in 2017, later removed the photo, stating in a correction that the fence had melted due to a fire, not a heat wave.

High-density polyethylene doesn’t melt below 200 degrees

The first photo in the series shows a blue curbside recycling bin with a gaping hole where the plastic has apparently melted away. Taken in Tempe, Arizona, according to the bin’s label, the photo has circulated in posts about Arizona heat all over the world. However, it is not possible that the photo depicts the direct effects of a heat wave.

A recycling bin overflows with corrugated cardboard boxes. (Photo: Elizabeth Weise)

According to Waste Advantage magazine, these bins are most commonly manufactured in high-density polyethylene plastic or polypropylene plastic. These materials require temperatures above 251.6 degrees in order to melt. So there is no possibility that even the highest recorded temperature in Tempe of 118 degres could have caused the bin to melt on its own.

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Other factors can cause damage

Another photo shows a street sign for Thomas Road in Phoenix.

However, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Street Transportation Department told a Phoenix NBC affiliate station that the deterioration wasn’t entirely related to the heat wave. More likely, she said, it was due to dust and other weather exposure over time.

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Heat wave caused the damage in one photo

At least one photo in the post shows damage caused by high temperatures – but not in Arizona.

The photo appears at first glance to show a tire’s rubber melting in stringy bands. A reverse image search led to the source of the photo: ABC Australia reported that a newly resurfaced road in Queensland melted at the peak of a heat wave in July 2018, causing the asphalt to stick to the tires of up to 50 cars.

Our rating: Partly false

We rate the claim that a series of photos shows objects that melted in heat waves PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. While USA TODAY could not identify the cause of damage in every photo, several of the photos included showed damage from a source other than a heat wave.

Our fact-check sources: 

  • AZ Central, June 18, Phoenix temperatures break another heat record, marking 4 consecutive days above 115
  • @Alizzeeeeee) June 13, 2021, tweet
  • T.C. Forensic, accessed June 21, Physical Constants for Investigators 2.1.2 Plastics
  • Waste Advantage Magazine, Jan. 1, 2018, Recycling Bin Durability and Reliability
  • Weatherbase, accessed June 22, Climate Summary for Tempe, Arizona
  • Buzzfeed, June 23, 2017, Holy S—, Arizona
  • Buzzfeed via Archive.org, June 23, 2017, It’s So Hot in Arizona Right Now That Everything is Literally Melting
  • u/EClydez, June 11, 2014, Reddit post
  • 12 News KPNX, June 23, 2017, Is the Phoenix Heat Causing Street Signs to Melt? 
  • YouTube, July 2013, حريق سيارة في العقيلة عند إشارة البيرق (Google translates to “Car fire in Egaila at Al-Bairaq signal”)
  • PesaCheck, June 26, 2019, FALSE: Cars and traffic lights did not melt following a heat wave in Kuwait
  • ABC Australia, July 4, 2018, Melting bitumen leaves motorists ‘sinking’ into Queensland road, destroys tyres

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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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