Europe reprimands Spain for its landfills

Vienna has an incinerator in the city center, Copenhagen has transformed one of these historic facilities into a leisure center with a ski slope included. The Paris Olympics being held this summer will host some events on the Seine, next to the Eiffel Tower and an urban solid waste recovery plant. All these cities burn those remains that they can no longer recover in any way and obtain electricity and heat for nearby homes. Furthermore, «these northern European countries are not only champions in recovery, but also in recycling. In Sweden, 40% of waste is recycled and 60% is recovered for energy. Germany recycles 70% and another 29% recovers it and Denmark recovers 42% of its garbage. These are countries with landfill rates close to zero,” explains Joaquín Pérez Viota, recently appointed president of the Association of Urban Waste Energy Recovery Companies.

The Aeversu association claims energy recovery in Spain as a way to achieve the EU objectives that dictate that by 2035 only 10% of garbage reaches landfills. Furthermore, they say, “facilities in Europe generate 43 billion kWh of electricity per year, supplying energy to 20 million inhabitants and heating to 17 million inhabitants.”

The situation in Spain with garbage is not one of the best in Europe. More than 46% of the waste we generate ends up in landfills. “That is between 110.5 and 11 million tons, 20% compared to the European total, which reaches 57 million tons,” says Pérez Viota. In Spain only 10.8% is valued today; Only 19.8% is recycled and 22.4% ends up in composting, according to the latest data published by the Ministry of Ecological Transition corresponding to the treatment of urban waste during 2021. Spain has received several calls for attention from the EU for the excess garbage that ends up in the landfill. The last one a few weeks ago, when the Commission decided to put the country on record, because 12.7% of urban remains do not receive the required treatment before being disposed of in landfills. Shortly before, in February, the Commission had already denounced the country before the European Court of Justice for having 195 illegal installations without sealing or restoring since 2008. It is the third time since 2015 that the European Court has given a blow to the government.

Spain currently has more than one hundred landfills and only 12 energy recovery plants. «We are now incorporating 2,000 GWh annually into the network thanks to the 2,550,000 tons of non-recyclable waste that we treat. This covers 12% of the needs of the homes that generate this garbage. But there is a lot of room for improvement and it is necessary to double the facilities or the capacity of those that already exist to meet the European objectives that ask that in 2035, 25% be energy treated, when now we only reach 10%,” warns the Aeversu Association.

Incinerators have not enjoyed good press (and, in fact, there is a tax on incineration). «There are projects that have been highly contested by the population; From the outset they have great social rejection, but many times it is not proportional to technical knowledge,” says Miquel Rovira, director of Eurecat's Sustainability Area. “Landfills emit 245% more CO2 than energy recovery,” they remind Aeversu to ensure that “combustion processes meet all requirements and are safe.” A paradigmatic case about emissions is that of the Pinto landfill. The satellite control systems of Spain's European Agency recorded a focus of methane emissions in 2021 that made this landfill the largest emitter in all of Europe.

From Aeversu they remember that recovery must be doubled, but it would be dedicated exclusively to that fraction of waste that cannot be recovered in any other way (for example, contaminated paper and textiles, plastics that are not being recycled today because they are mixed). ). The other big bet, and the priority, to reach that 10% that Europe asks for is the Circular Economy (avoid waste, reuse or repair it and then recycle). «With a wooden pallet that is thrown away, you can make chips that serve as new conglomerate material in a future piece of furniture; With ceramics and concrete you can make recycled gravel for new civil works, there are bricks made with construction waste,” explains Paula Sánchez, managing director and founder of Cocircular, a company created to improve the recycling ratios of companies (they work on everything with the construction sector). According to her studies, “the first step to promote the circular economy is good separation at origin. We have detected a second problem in the second part of the heat chain: there is a lot of opacity regarding the transformers and in some cases, data obsolescence. We have seen that some managers do not transform all the waste they manage, there are even cases of public lists in which transformers appear that no longer exist. If we do not know clearly what happens to the waste, we will not be able to prevent it from reaching the landfill. The third problem is the lack of connection between raw materials and the outflow to manufacturers. There is a lack of metrics and transparency,” says Sánchez.

One of the causes that is usually referred to when talking about the poor grade that Spain receives in terms of garbage that reaches landfills is the low price that landfilling has historically had. However, with the 2022 law that has changed; The government has set a landfill tax of 30 euros per ton in all CCAA. «Historically, Catalonia had a very high landfill tax, but another phenomenon occurred: the traffic of waste to other nearby CCAA. Now that the tax has been set the same for everyone, each municipality will have an annual service collection rate and will have to decide how to distribute the cost among its citizens,” explains Eduardo Perero, technical director and head of the Economics area. Circular and Water of the Conama Foundation.

In addition to the increase in prices for pouring, local administrations are focused on valuing the organic fraction. A garbage bag from our house contains 40% of this fraction (potato skins, garlic, fruit bones or fish scrapings, bread…). These organic solid waste can be transformed into compost or biogas. «Spanish municipalities have made it a priority. But, in general, it is about separating and finding the best treatment for each waste: with paper or glass it is about improving processes, since they have good recycling ratios. Now the focus is on textiles, and for next year a first Scrap (Collective System of Extended Producer Responsibility) is planned for producers to take responsibility for recycling their clothing. Plastic continues to be a challenge for the Circular Economy, but starting next year action will focus on commercial and industrial waste: all those pallets or packaging moved by the parcel industry for which there is now no producer responsibility system,” concludes Perero.