What will we do with our rubbish in ten years' time?

2016-02-08 08:00:00

A rubbish dump is, without a doubt, the last place a visitor to a town or city would want to go. It is easiest to forget that such places exist; better to imagine that the rubbish we put in the containers every night disappears by magic. Nevertheless, rubbish collectors and, more generally, urban waste management, are probably the two things without which a city would be brought to a standstill.

In Malaga, people have seen this for themselves with the strikes by Limasa, but while the saga of working conditions at the cleaning company captures the attention of the public and the media, there is another problem which is less urgent but more important, and which could put in jeopardy the future management of Malaga’s rubbish: the Los Ruices dump will run out of space in just over ten years. Not only that, but there is no definitive alternative for a place in which more than 60 per cent of the city’s rubbish ends up.
The councillor for the Environment, Raúl Jiménez, says the deadline for Los Ruices is 2025, although if it is possible to make use of part of the site which had been set aside for rubble - which is not being used as much as expected, because of the crisis - “it gives a margin of an extra year.” But it is not only Malaga city that will have a problem about what to do with its rubbish. The same problem affects the 89 municipalities in La Axarquía and the inland regions whose rubbish is transported to the environmental centres of Valsequillo (Antequera) and Casarabonela, which are run by the Provincial Consortium for Solid Urban Waste (RSU).
The manager of this organisation, which is part of the provincial government, Daniel Sánchez, confirms that the dump in Casarabonela will be closed this year, just like the ones which previously existed in Ronda and La Viñuela, when they became full. “At Valsequillo, which is where all the rubbish is going to be concentrated, we have a horizon of 12 years if waste continues to be produced at existing levels,” he says.
No problems on the Costa
The only centre which is not suffering from these problems of space is that of Casares, which serves the whole Mancomunidad de Municipios of the Western Costa del Sol. The vice president of this body, José Antonio Gómez, says the third section of this dump will last for a further eight years and that he has given orders for work to begin, in conjunction with the concessionary company Urbaser, on planning to enlarge the complex. “We have enough land to create a fourth and fifth area, and that would meet the needs of the municipalities on the western Costa del Sol for another 40 or 50 years,” he explains.
So apart from the western coast, what is to be done with the rubbish generated by the other municipalities in Malaga province in ten years’ time? There is no real answer to that, simply because the question has not been tackled.
The Ciedes Foundation wanted to put this problem on the table three years ago and commissioned a report from two experts at the Chemical Engineering department of Malaga University. This was the subject of debate at the VI Metropolitan Forum for Mayors. “We presented it, it was well received and they agreed on a series of lines of action, but after that nothing was done,” say Francisco García Herruzo and José Miguel Rodríguez Maroto, the authors of the report.
Malaga city hall, the Provincial Consortium of RSU and the Mancomunidad de Municipios of the Western Costa del Sol all recognise the need to define the future of urban waste management, but they also admit that they have no plans to do so in the short term. Francisco García Herruzo also warns that “ten years may seem a long time, but searching for alternatives and drawing up the projects could take as long as that.”
Raúl Jiménez agrees: “We need to define the model before time catches up with us. We are pushing for a supramunicipal solution: the creation of an integral urban waste treatment centre for the whole province or for the metropolitan area,” he explains.
There is one starting point upon which everyone is agreed: nobody wants more rubbish dumps. Not the town halls, who know the problems they would create among local people, nor the European Union, which has said that by 2020 rubbish dumps can no longer be used as a means of waste disposal.
The hierarchy established by the EU for the treatment of rubbish treats the dumps as a last resort. The established order is: prevention, preparation for re-use, recycling, other types of treatment (including energy recovery) and, finally, dumping. “Spain has a long way to go before it achieves this aim, given that 60 per cent of local waste ends up at dumps, while in countries like Germany and Holland it is less than five per cent,” says Alberto Martínez Villar, a biologist and expert in environmental education.
No more dumps
And if no more dumps are acceptable, what alternatives are there? The study published by the Ciedes Foundation shows one way: “There needs to be a change in the present management model, increasing reduction, re-use, recycling and the recovery of urban waste,” it says.
“On one hand, we need to increase the percentage of recycled paper, glass and containers and to do that we have to raise awareness among the public and, in some places, increase the number of recycling bins,” says José Miguel Rodríguez Maroto. The report also says more organic waste should be turned into compost.
Composting is a process of fermenting organic waste. There are compost plants in the three biggest environmental centres in the province. “The problem is that the quality of the product obtained is not suitable for sale on the market, because of the high amount of non-organic materials it contains,” say the professors from Malaga University.
The organic waste arrives in rubbish bags mixed with all other types of waste, so even though it undergoes a treatment process, it is inevitable that the final product contains some ‘intrusive’ components.
“Nobody wants the compost. In fact, we give it away free to anyone who’ll take it,” admits the manager of the Provincial Consortium. His counterparts in Malaga city and the Mancomunidad of the Western Costa del Sol agree. What is ironic is that if nobody takes it away, two years later this compost which has cost time and money to produce ends up at the dump.
To obtain a compost which is higher quality and therefore easier to sell, the experts advise the introduction of selective collection of organic waste. But the town halls don’t want to even consider a fifth type of container. “With the resources that we have at present, it wouldn’t be viable,” says Raúl Jiménez.
For the waste which cannot be recycled or turned into compost, the authors of the study suggest a system which has never been used before in Malaga or anywhere else in Andalucía: energy recovery from waste. In other words, burning the rubbish under controlled conditions in special facilities, to obtain energy and gas. This system is used in the most advanced countries in Europe, but in Spain there are only plants of this type in Madrid and further north.
There are two main reasons for that: the high cost of these facilities and their bad reputations, although “the rumours are unfounded,” insist the authors of the Ciedes study. “Some ecological organisations have spread the belief that these plants are contaminatory and dangerous for health, but in reality an incinerator pollutes less than a city’s bus fleet,” says José Miguel Rodríguez Maroto, who stresses the “incredibly demanding” safety requirements set by the EU for facilities of this type.
“Nowadays they are so safe that they are built in cities. In Paris, there is one not far from the Eiffel tower. And in Germany, they were encouraged by the Greens, when they were in charge of the Ministry of the Environment,” he adds.
The Ciedes report recommends the construction of a plant of this type, which would be capable of processing all the rubbish from the province (about 300,000 tonnes a year). In fact, it suggests something even more ambitious: that this plant should form part of an “Integral Centre for Energy Recovery from Waste, strategically located, which would not only save money on transporting the rubbish but also cover the minimum amounts of energy required for new management systems.”
This solution would be in line with the ‘supramunicipal solution’ suggested by Malaga city hall. The manager of the Provincial Consortium recognises that energy recovery from waste “is the future,” but also that the present financial situation “impedes the creation of such a plant,” because of its high cost: 120 million euros or more.
Pérez believes there is still “a margin”, because this type of project would take five or six years to come to fruition. The authors of the report are less optimistic and warn that normally it can take up to ten years.
For José Miguel Rodríguez Maroto, it is a question of priorities. source surinenglish