Spain is the European Union country which discharges the most waste to dumps: A total of 12 million tonnes per year in 2017, the last year with available data.
A total of 132.1 million tonnes of waste were generated in Spain that year. The majority came from industries (31,12%), construction (26,75%) and households (17,1%). You can consult in the chart below the distribution in the generation of waste according to the sector of activity elaborated by RTVE (article in Spanish):
Three types of waste and dumps
Dumps are waste disposal facilities by underground or surface deposition and are classified into three categories:
- Dumps for hazardous waste.
- Dumps for non-hazardous waste. Mainly municipal waste where the organic fraction has the greatest environmental impact, because its decomposition generates methane and other greenhouse gases and also produces instability in dumps.
- Dumps for inert waste (rubble, bricks and plaster).
Spanish councils managed 22 million tonnes of waste, of which about half went to 116 council dumps.
Councils are responsible for waste from households and the service sector (shops, offices and public or private institutions), but not for commercial waste managed through private channels other than the municipal one, waste from industry and construction. The responsibility for dealing with such waste lies with the companies that generate it, either directly or through authorised waste management companies.
There is no single state registry
Responsibility for waste and landfill rests with each of the Autonomous Communities. For this reason, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge is compiling all information and data related to this subject in a single shared register. The problem is that not all regional administrations collect data using the same methodology.
By Autonomous Communities, Asturias, Madrid or the Valencia are the ones that are having the most issues with the excess of their dump’s capacity.
Europe bets for energy recovery (waste to energy)
Spain bases its waste policy on dump and recycling:
- On one side, more than half of all waste is still dumped (51,1%).
- On the other side, the percentage of waste that is recycled grows year after year (from 29,79% in 2015 to 36,11% in 2017), but seems difficult to reach the European Union’s target of 2025, which sets a minimum percentage of 55%.
The figures for discharges in Spain are in line with those of countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic or Portugal. Other European countries, however, are betting instead on incineration. Both options have their pros and cons: dump occupy land and can pollute air, water and soil, but incineration can lead to emissions of air pollutants.
In Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands there are almost no dump. The amount of waste that ends up buried does not reach 1% of their annual production, as they recycle more and bet on energy recovery, which consists in burning the waste to convert it into energy. Electricity, steam or hot water for domestic or industrial use whose generation emits 19 times less CO2 than conventional dump. After treatment, the waste is reduced to only 2% slag and ash. The former can also be reused as on-site aggregates and scrap for steel companies.
The Circular Economy Package approved by the European Commission identifies energy recovery as a key to mitigating and curbing the climate and economic impact of non-recyclable waste.
There are 598 energy recovery plants in Europe. Known as eco-parks, they operate in the centre of cities such as Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris or Berlin producing energy that it used to generate electricity or power heating.
In contrast, in Spain and Andorra there are only 11 eco-parks in operation with the average age of between 15 and 20 years. Today’s energy recovery in Spain accounts for only 12% of the final destination of waste, according to Eurostat data. The European average is 25% and in countries such as Sweden, Denmark or Finland it’s over 50%.
According to data from Aeversu, energy recovery plants in Spain treated 2.566.647 tonnes of non-recyclable waste during 2017, producing 1.997.198 megawatt-hours of energy (Mwh), enough to supply approximately 500.000 homes.
The low cost of landfill charges
In England was introduced over a decade ago a tax of £95 for every tonne taken to the dump.
In Spain, taking waste to landfill is much cheaper. There isn´t a national waste tax (each Autonomous Community applies dumping rates and/or different fees) and the cost of infrastructure maintenance isn´t reflected, although the European Commission recommends the imposition of a uniform dump charge to encourage the adoption of alternative systems.
It´s foreseeable that in the coming years the rates of dumps in Spain will be increasing, in order to approach European levels. And it´s inevitable that the debate with the model of energy use of the waste will be increasing. It´s clear that the current model has an expiration date and the time will come to start thinking about viable alternative that combine the recovery, retrieval and reuse of materials. As well as the energy use of materials that cannot be recovered or reused.