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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.