Each one of us produces a massive amount of waste, but even with recycling programme widely available will the island be able to cope once two landfill sites are closed by the end of the month asks Annette Chrysostomou
We all throw things away every day – some make an attempt at recycling while others just dump them – but what do we know about what happens to all the stuff we get rid of? Where does our rubbish go in Cyprus? What happens once we fill our bags with recyclable material? What does the government already do and what more could be done? These questions become more urgent as more and more tourists arrive, meaning more waste, and the two landfills of Kotsiatis and Vati set to close by the end of the month.
The closure of the two landfills was announced by the agriculture ministry at the beginning of February.
What then happens to the 468 kilos of garbage people produce yearly in residential areas and the 670 kilos produced in touristic areas?
The municipal waste from Koshiatis will be diverted to plants in Koshi and that of Vati in Pentakomo, Greens MP Charalambos Theopemptou explained.
Koshi covers Limassol and Nicosia, while rubbish from Larnaca and Famagusta ends up in Pentakomo and Paphos has its own facility, according to the office of the environment commissioner.
At least this is where the rubbish that is collected from households goes. But as has often been stressed a substantial number of illegal landfills exist, with a 2017 study putting the amount of garbage dumped mainly in rural areas at 25 per cent.
General manager of non-profit organisation Green Dot Kyriacos Parpounas says it is difficult to count how many things other than packaging people get rid of illegally. “There is a lack of facilities for certain things like big items and people may just throw them in a field,” he commented.
“Facilities like Koshi and Pentakomo are not for specific waste streams such as skips and construction. There are still not enough green points and many people don’t have anywhere to take bulky material.”
Much of the packaging which is discarded, an estimated half of what is in the market, is collected by Green Dot. In 2017 the company collected 56,000 tonnes out of an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 tonnes.
Green Dot, which picks up waste from residences and companies, mainly sorts stuff rather than processing it for reuse. Glass is crushed and utilised in Cyprus, but the rest is sorted in two local facilities, one in Moni and one in Latsia, and then sent abroad, to countries all over the world, including Greece, Lebanon, China, Thailand and India. This is one solution to get the rubbish out of the country, though it has been reported that much of the material is not actually treated by many of those countries merely put it in their own landfills.
The reason there is no recycling plant in the country is that the numbers are too small for a factory to efficiently operate, Green Dot says.
Parpounas stressed that nothing which is collected by the organisation is left untreated, even material which is unsuitable for recycling or has been wrongly sorted by people.
“Of the 25,000 tons per year collected [from the households] 3,000 are not suitable for recycling, but even those are not sent back to the landfills but are sent for energy recovery to the cement plant,” he said.
One of the main reason people add ‘not suitable’ items is that there is a confusion over what is collected, especially when it comes to plastic. Actually there are seven types of plastic, labelled from one to seven depending how easily they can be recycled and only some are dealt with by Green Dot.
When you check a plastic item carefully, you will find the number on the product. Plastic bottles are likely to be ‘PP1’, while plastic packaging of foodstuffs and dishes for frozen foodstuff are probably a ‘PP5’, and indeed the company says that such items are “not a target of the system”.
Among others they also don’t collect plastic wrappers of pasta, biscuits, and aluminum foil and wrappers, the reason being that the system concentrates on the collection of material which can easily and efficiently be recycled.
Effective recycling is hampered when materials are not sorted at home when they are not clean.
“For example, if paper is mixed with the remnants of food, then the largest part of the paper will not be usable and all our work will have been wasted,” Green Dot explained.
Worse is when people don’t use the white and brown recycling bags as suggested by the organisation but just throw everything away together.
This waste is sorted at the two plants in Koshi and Pentakomo, which have a capacity for 400,000 tonnes.
The idea is that the plastic, tins and some paper are sorted automatically, some is sold as recyclable material and the rest composted. However, again this is not without its problems.
Parpounas and others mentioned issues regarding technology. Pentakomo has a big problem with solid waste which is too wet despite attempts to dry it, and does not meet specifications, meaning much of the rubbish cannot be burnt, Xenios Agathacleous from the office of the environment commissioner confirmed. Other technological problems exist at Koshi.
Theopemptou also commented: “They do some drying out but the end result is extremely bad and is just thrown into the landfill next door.”
One could argue these are only the symptoms and not the root of the problem. Theopemptou for one points to the lack of relevant legislation.
“Building these plants was a huge mistake. The EU directive 2008/98 is very clear on the priorities of waste management.”
Article 4 of the directive says the waste hierarchy shall apply as a priority order in waste prevention and management legislation and policy, clearly stating that the first point of the hierarchy is prevention, and only after that preparing for re-use, recycling other recovery, e.g. energy recovery should be employed; and disposal as a last resort.
“It also promotes separate collection at the source. But they didn’t want to listen, they wanted the big plants,” the Greens MP said.
He points out the need for regulations to provide for separate collection of recyclable materials and organic waste from every house on the island with obligatory terms that would reduce the waste arriving at the plants significantly.
“We need to increase recycling tools from pay as you throw and compulsory participation as most EU countries do, and to move away from packaging only,” the Green Dot manager added.
He agrees that we don’t need more large plants, but better practices.
“There are private biogas and compost facilities, which are used for example at pig farms, which have the capacity to process 100 to 120 tonnes of kitchen waste provided it is sorted, and they are not used for this purpose at all. There is a great delay in planning and this makes no sense and is a great waste.
“There is a pressing need for special facilities to deal with compost and tree cuttings. The sorting of organic waste is a long-overdue issue.”
Dealing with these issues – not such a difficult thing to do – would improve the situation a lot, Parpounas stressed.
In summing up, he noted there are a lot of loose ends and a neglect in planning is rife. “We talk a lot about issues and do much less.”
Theopemptou believes change is going to happen. “The new regulations that are now out for public consultation will result in big changes on how we handle waste.”
Or will it? The government still seems to believe it is on the right track.
“The definitive closure of the illegal landfills in Vati and Kotsiatis is part of the government’s broader environmental policy to reduce the uncontrolled disposal of waste in landfills and its proper utilisation and is an obligation of the Republic of Cyprus in the implementation of the European directives for management of waste,” the ministry noted when announcing the closure, the only comment available by the environment department on the subject of rubbish at the time of publication.
A history of EU fines
Cyprus has long faced fines over the delay to shut down the landfills, ordered by the EU in 2013.
After ordering the closure, the EU repeatedly warned that the country would have to pay steep fines if they did not close them down.
In May 2017, the EU initiated an infringement process for the delays with Cyprus looking at fines of around €
30,000 for each day of delay. But following a visit in October that year by European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella the EU gave the government more time.
The EU is setting a new goal of increasing recyclables to 55 per cent of municipal waste by the year 2025, from 44 per cent currently.
Cyprus now recycles less than 20 per cent of its waste.
Under proposed EU legislation, the percentage of municipal waste ending up in landfills should be no more than 10 per cent by 2035.