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.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.