ENVIRONMENT

Less than 30 percent of Madrid’s garbage is being recycled

Improper separation of waste means region is long way from meeting EU targets for 2020

Two workers manually separate garbage at the Valdemíngomez waste plant.
Two workers manually separate garbage at the Valdemíngomez waste plant.CARLOS ROSILLO

In Madrid, something as ordinary as throwing away a banana skin contributes to the greenhouse effect. The result of mixing organic and non-recycled waste in the capital’s four main garbage-treatment plants is an increase in methane output, which seeps into the atmosphere.

Figures from 2012 show that 72.9 percent of Madrid’s garbage is not recycled, and the main reason for this is the failure to separate organic waste from everything else, unlike in Catalonia and the Basque Country and much of the rest of the European Union.

Each of Madrid’s 6.5 million inhabitants produces an average of 461 kilos of garbage a year, and much of it all gets mixed together. Ecoembes, an organization that manages the collection and recycling of plastic packaging, says that 91.7 percent of households in the capital separate their waste into three main categories: organic and non-recyclable; packaging; and paper. But this has little value unless it is accompanied by efficient organic waste policies.

“Madrid’s landfill sites are filled each year with millions of tons of household waste that is not properly treated. Landfills are at maximum capacity and are producing huge amounts of methane, which multiplies the greenhouse effect by 25 in terms of CO2 emissions,” says environmental group Ecologists in Action.

91.7 percent of Madrid households separate waste, but it is of little value unless accompanied by efficient policies

Madrid’s environment department has no clear strategy for dealing with the huge amount of non-recycled garbage piling up in the region’s dumps. It says this is now the responsibility of local councils: “They need to implement measures so that they meet EU requirements,” says a spokesman.

In 2011, Brussels announced that by 2020, at least 50 percent of garbage should be recycled.

Under Madrid’s Urban Garbage Plan, introduced in 2006 to run until 2016, the regional government is no longer responsible for managing the collection and treatment of waste. This now comes under the remit of individual municipalities, which are grouped into three areas: south, north and east.

Garbage generated in the capital has traditionally been managed by City Hall at the Valdemingómez waste treatment plant, where around 4,000 tons of organic and non-recycled rubbish arrive each day. City Hall says it is planning to increase the site’s capacity, a move that Ecologists in Action has condemned as “barbaric,” saying that incinerating waste only solves the problem of space, “but it is the most harmful measure for the environment and in the long run does not solve the real problem.”

In 2011, Brussels announced that by 2020, at least 50 percent of garbage should be recycled

The group says that in order to meet EU requirements and take the pressure off landfill sites, City Hall should be selective in collecting rubbish, providing separate dumpsters for organic material, while at the same time investing in treatment and recycling.

The regional government accepts that too much waste is being put into landfill. Earlier this year Mariano González Suárez, director general of the environmental evaluation unit, put the figure at 1.8 million tons out of a total of 2.8 million tons, “a similar figure to 1998 and 1999.”

The regional government’s plan was for organic and non-recyclable waste to make up 35 percent of the 1995 figure by 2016. With less than two years to go, that figure remains a long way off. “This is still a large amount and we need to continue progressing so that less waste is landfilled to meet our targets, but we are seeing a slowdown, and the alternatives that local councils will provide will allow us to do that.”

But Ecologists in Action says the regional government is unlikely to meet those targets. “To do so would mean significantly reducing the amount of organic waste that is landfilled, which today makes up 50 percent of the total, and treat it to generate energy or make compost,” says the group.

City Hall should provide separate dumpsters for organic waste and invest in treatment, recommends one NGO

The ongoing economic downturn has helped the regional government meet some of its environmental objectives: there has been a significant reduction in waste output in Madrid in recent years, which has taken the pressure off landfill sites. At the same time, a new garbage-processing plant is due to be built in the east of the capital to replace the existing one, which is now at full capacity. The decision has angered environmentalists and local residents, who have overturned plans for a plasma incinerator to be built.

“The regional government has been given €70 million from EU funds and we are still far from meeting EU objectives. This money has not been used properly, and now the problem is being passed on to local councils,” says a Socialist Party spokesman.