Why are some European cities so much better than others at dealing with their garbage?

A particularly scenic Spanish landfill site. Image: Getty.

The end of Beirut’s eight-month garbage crisis may be in sight, now that trucks have begun removing the piles of rubbish accumulating in the streets to temporary landfill sites.

The problems began when the city’s main landfill site was closed last July, after local residents protested that it was at capacity. No alternative sites were provided for waste disposal, so garbage began to pile up on the city’s peripheries, and eventually in the city itself.

When crises like this occur in other countries, Europeans tend to congratulate themselves on their efficient waste management systems. But the recent strike by garbage collectors in the Spanish city of Málaga – which resulted in enormous rubbish heaps choking the streets – shows how not all EU members manage their waste well.

It’s not a new situation in Europe, either: the Campania region in southern Italy has suffered serious problems with municipal waste management since the mid-1990s. The area between Naples and Caserta has even been nicknamed the “land of fires”, as a consequence of the frequent blazes burning up huge mounds of illegal and hazardous wastes.

At one point in 2007, the US Embassy in Rome warned Americans against travelling to Naples and its surrounds, citing health risks. The city’s tourist trade still suffers from its reputation for dirty streets.

Warm welcome. Image: Waxorian/Flickr/creative commons.

So why do some European countries manage their waste well, while others lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe? After all, the EU has issued directives for all its member states regarding waste disposal: you’d expect some consistency.

Not all waste is equal

For one thing, the amount of municipal waste generated differs substantially between EU countries: in 2013, it ranged from 747kg per capita in Denmark, to 272kg per capita in Romania. These variations reflect differences in economic wealth and consumption patterns, but also depend on how municipal waste is collected and managed.

Landfill has generally been the main method of municipal waste treatment and disposal in the EU. But a defining moment occurred in 1975, when EU laws introduced the so-called “waste hierarchy”.

The waste hierarcy. Image: author provided.

The waste hierarchy indicates an order of preference for different measures to reduce and manage waste. The hierarchy prioritises waste prevention: this could include using environmentally-friendly product designs, implementing local waste prevention plans and financial disincentives such as landfill tax. When waste is created, the hierarchy then gives priority to direct re-use, then to recycling and recovery methods – such as energy recovery from waste to produce heat or electricity – and last of all, to disposal.

It was optional for member states to adopt the waste hierarchy; but there was an expectation that it would be included within national waste management laws. It was hoped that the hierarchy would protect the environment, conserve resources and minimise the amount of waste generated.

Slow on the uptake

For a couple of decades, very few countries took any notice of the hierarchy. High levels of landfilling continued across the EU throughout the 1990s. It wasn’t until 1999 that addressing the issue became a political priority, which led to the EU’s landmark landfill directive.

Specific targets were not set for the overall reduction of disposal via landfill, but for the amount of plant and food waste sent to landfill. Further directives emphasised the need for member states to adopt the waste hierarchy. The most significant was the EU Waste Framework Directive, introduced in 2008, which set an objective that 50 per cent of all municipal solid waste was to be recycled or composted by 2020.

But even these blanket targets offer no guarantee of successful waste management across Europe. For one thing, many countries break European laws without any obvious consequences; for example Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia missed the 2010 and 2013 targets for diverting biodegradable municipal waste from landfill.

What’s more, every country takes a different approach: a huge range of combinations of recycling, composting, incineration and landfilling are used across the EU. Northern and central European countries have made most progress in terms of moving away from landfill: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands landfill less than 3 per cent of their municipal waste. Meanwhile, countries in the east and south have made little or no progress.

Waste not want not

The reasons for this disparity are complicated, but factors include the availability of finance, political and social will, technical skills, suitable planning and legal frameworks, and a wide range of other social, demographic, cultural and administrative factors. The notion that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to EU citizens also means that member states are obliged to come up with waste management strategies to suit their people, rather than take a uniform approach.

Meanwhile, Eastern European countries which that have only recently joined the EU — such as Lithuania, Slovakia and Latvia – have not been required to use the waste hierarchy as a guiding principle. It isn’t straightforward to implement the waste hierarchy within a country: new laws must be brought in, systems for data collection and monitoring set up, and separate collection and sorting systems for different kinds of waste established.

Barcelona’s waste collection sucks – in a good way. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There are some good examples of what works, though. Countries with strong political leadership and cross-party agreement on environmental issues – such as Germany, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland – tend to manage waste well. What’s more, countries which view waste as a resource have found novel and productive uses for it.

Belgium recycles precious metals such as gold and platinum from electronics; Germany harvests biogas from the breakdown of organic materials; Wales has focused on getting people to sort waste correctly for more effective recycling and to lower greenhouse gas emissions. And the clever use of automated technology, such as underground vacuum-powered waste disposal systems, have helped keep streets clear in cities such as Barcelona, London and Copenhagen.

The protection of our environment is becoming an increasingly important global priority, and the political, commercial and health benefits of effective waste management are clear. With time, these facts should give countries the incentives they need to manage their waste effectively. Future waste management will become more about lifestyle choices and less about managing the wastes we generate.The Conversation

 


Ian Williams is professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Southampton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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