translated from Spanish: Why do some countries barely use landfills while others have hundreds?

According to data from the European Union, Spain produces about 475 kg of municipal solid waste per capita (2018 data). The amount is not inordinate compared with other countries in the Union. The problem is that we recycle only a third and more than half (54%) ends up in controlled landfills (about 182), a percentage that is more than double the European average (24% in the EU-28).
Infographic on the EU targets for municipal waste in the Member States, as well as the current situation.
The Union remains committed to reducing the amount of these discharges to 10% and increasing their recycling to 50% per Member State by 2035, so it is time to devise new strategies to achieve this objective.
This same source of data reveals to us that the countries of northern Europe, such as Finland and Sweden, but also Belgium and the Netherlands, make little use of landfill sites. On the other hand, it is a common practice in the countries of southern Europe, why? How do they manage to do without the use of landfills? To answer these questions it is necessary to first “assume” that landfills are a problem and as such must be solved.
Are landfills really bad?
In the consumerist society we live in, where acquiring a multitude of goods is a symbol of well-being and social status, it is practically impossible not to throw away something “old” to acquire something new and better. And somewhere the waste has to go, far from our homes (to avoid visual impacts and odors) and where there is no danger of aquifers being contaminated (Law 22/2011 establishes that landfills must be located away from waterways and bodies of water, including groundwater).
Finding places where waste can accumulate is complicated because not only the location must meet several requirements (through a mandatory report of the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain), but also take into account the decision that this land can not be dedicated to other uses (perhaps more lucrative). If they are also not recycled, the “mountain” increases and, no matter how much we try to compress them by means of machinery, we will have to find a new place to stack the new ones that are generated.
In addition to space, the fact that they are covered with layers of earth, so that they are buried and the waste decomposes, makes landfills cause an environmental problem. Compression generates anoxia (no pores, no oxygen) and decomposition takes place under anaerobic conditions (by specialized microorganisms) causing not only carbon dioxide (CO₂) but also methane (CH₄ responsible for bad odors) to be emitted. Both gases are responsible for the greenhouse effect and the increase in temperature of our planet.
If the calorific potential of CO₂ is 1, that of methane is 25 times higher, which means that no matter how little methane is released, the impacts on earth’s climate are much greater. In fact, according to a report by the International Solid Waste Association, landfills will be responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
How to avoid waste generation
As with any environmental problem, the first option would be to “reduce” the cause of the problem by following the well-known rule of the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. And this is where we have to look at the northern countries that are ahead of us. For example, in Finland, waste management is based on an order of priority:

waste generation should be avoided;
if waste is generated, it should be prepared for reuse;
if reuse is not possible, the waste should be recovered mainly as (recycled) materials and, secondly, as energy;
waste is disposed of in landfills only if its recovery is not technically or financially viable.

Making the “landfill destination” the last option for the waste we generate implies a radical change of mentality, from the productive sector to the end user.
Shutterstock / MelaViola
What are the alternatives?
Industrial fabric must use manufacturing materials (and packaging) that either degrade easily, have a long service life (and then take a long time to generate the waste), or can be recycled. It is not a utopia. A few years ago English scientists designed a biodegradable mobile phone for Motorola that becomes a flower when it decomposes (it carries a seed inside).
Recently, the European Parliament adopted new legislation which will oblige manufacturers to indicate clearly on the labelling of the product what their repair rate is. In addition, spare parts must be available “for a long period of time after purchase”. For example, seven years “minimum” for refrigerators or ten in the case of washing machines and household dishwashers.
Another alternative would be the degassing and reuse of biogas, a by-product resulting from the decomposition of waste. Among the collection devices there are vertical and horizontal, but basically they consist of a suction system connected to a network of pipes that go inside the stacked layers of waste and systems for converting biogas into electrical energy.
There are several Spanish companies that provide this type of infrastructure, which must guarantee the control of the process (including the analysis of the composition of the gases produced) and avoid possible risks (fires or explosion). The profitability of the process will depend on the type of waste deposited (amount of biodegradable material) and the environmental conditions of temperature, humidity and pH, factors that condition the activity of microbial decomposers.
Technology exists, European legislation drives it and the “glove” has been picked up by the Spanish Government through the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge. Royal Decree 646/2020, of 7 July, regulates the disposal of waste by landfilling.
It remains for us to put it into practice and tackle the problem of ‘illegal’ landfills, which has put us in Europe’s eye for several years (with threats of prosecution). As a result, the number has been greatly reduced, but there are still 420 as reported to the EU in 2021. We are on the right track, but cruising speed must be left to step on the accelerator and reach the targets set for 2035.
María Jesús Iglesias Briones, University Professor, Universidade de Vigo
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

Original source in Spanish

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