Most people who care about our precious environment will try to do their bit to recycle – even while ignoring the sceptical voice in their ear which tells them there’s no point: It will probably all end up in landfill anyway! But how true is this and what can we do about it? We sent Sophie Sadler to find out.
And as it turns out, when it comes to rubbish disposal, Portugal’s making big steps in the right direction. Part of that seems to be because there’s an economic incentive which makes recycling far more appealing than the landfill option.
British Waste Management expert Zoë Lenkiewicz from Wasteaid, the charity which shares waste management and recycling skills with communities in low and middle-income coutries, tells me: “Materials collected separately for recycling, such as glass, tins and plastic, have a value and can be sold to reprocessors. Conversely, mixed waste that needs to be disposed of represents a cost. Provided people put the correct items in the recycling bins, the materials will be recycled rather than landfilled – it makes economic sense.”
With this is mind I join forces with Mike Pease, who retired to the Algarve 30 years ago after a career working as an agricultural planner for the World Bank. He’s now involved with setting up a Clean Up Lagos campaign in conjunction with Lagos Câmara (to be launched in Tomorrow magazine in the next couple of months).
In a bid to see for ourselves what really happens to our rubbish, Mike and I visit Algar – the company responsible for rubbish collection throughout the Algarve – at their main depot in Loulé. The plant at Loulé handles rubbish from the Sotavento region while a second plant at Porto de Lagos processes waste from Barlavento, including Lagos and Portimão.
Arriving at Algar I’m pleasantly surprised at the air of organisation and space. Neatly manicured lawns surround impressively contemporary offices with a huge pile of tyres reminding me more of a modern art installation than rubbish. In the distance a lorry off-loads old mattresses, but all seems ship-shape and there’s no bad smell.
As we’re met on the steps with press officer Maria João and mechanical engineer, Carlos Jucal to
explain how it all works, a group of suited VIPs file past. We’re told these are the heads of the six Algarve Câmaras (which still have a 49% stake after the state-owned company went public in 2015).
So what happens once we’ve disposed of our household rubbish in our local lixo and recycling bins?
Currently 3000 containers throughout the Algarve are emptied by 26 trucks. The rubbish then goes to the main plants via transfer stations in Lagos, Albufeira, Aljezur, Vila do Bispo and Portimão. Working alongside are eco-centres where individuals can take larger plastic items that don’t fit in the bins. The nearest eco-centre for residents of the Western Algarve is located at Parque Industrial Coca Maravilhas in Portimão.
Glass goes to two sorting stations located in Chão Frio, Porto de Lagos and Barros, S. João da Venda in Almancil before being recycled into new products by private companies.
Garden waste is manually sorted into piles, shredded and sent on to another plant in São Brás de Alportel where it’s made into Nutriverde, certified organic compost used in biological agriculture and only available from Algar plants.
Moving on to plastics. In a large warehouse, stacked to the roof are clean, bales of different materials, sorted for recycling; each comprising a different type of plastic: Crushed water bottles in one, milk cartons in another, crisp packets and margarine lids in yet another. Plastic bags tethered by binding strips. It’s both a revelation and incredibly motivating to see our everyday rubbish sorted into something so palatable and I vow never to put anything recyclable into a black bin bag again.
I ask Carlos if it’s necessary to wash the packaging thoroughly, often a requirement in the UK? Carlos tells me it doesn’t have to be spotless but contamination of the recycled material from food waste is one of their biggest problems, so there should be no food left inside and the container rinsed. You could do it at the end of washing up, before letting the water down the drain.
Algar sells the bales on to integrated packaging management companies Sociedade Ponto Verde, Novo Verde and Amb3E. The government sets the price and they’re subsidised by companies selling packaged products to consumers. And the real benefit? Last year 1,295 tonnes of clear plastic bottles (PET) went into producing over 1.5 million fleece sweaters, 15,039 tonnes of glass contributed to over 37 million new glass bottles and 12,501 tonnes of paper/carton meant that nearly 200,000 trees were not felled.
But we’re not done yet. The largest building, the plastics-sorting “factory” houses ceiling-high piles of plastic containers of all kinds, shovelled first by dumper trucks, chugging up conveyor belts to the epicentre of the activity before being identified by laser and blown into containers dependent on their type, shape or weight. Cans and metals are extracted by magnet and the plastics divided into the different types.
Finally, it’s to the hand-sorting cabin where two cheerful ladies sort a conveyor belt of different plastics, weeding out incorrect items like paper which can contaminate the recycling process. Once again, this highlights the necessity for everyone to put the right waste in the right bin. Another logistical problem for Algar is the huge disparity between the summer and winter population in the Algarve. In order to cope with the huge amounts of waste deposited in the eco bins during the summer means giving their 300 employees much longer shifts as well as subcontracting out to other companies.
But why do we have Eco bins rather than street collection? Carlos explains. “This is a historical decision adopted in the Algarve due to cost and also the problems of getting trucks into narrow streets. Lisbon and the old centre of Lagos in comparison does have street collection so it is not a national policy.”
The one recyclable refuse not currently collected by the Câmara is organic kitchen waste. The best solution is for households to compost their own and use the resulting fertiliser on their garden plants but that’s clearly not possible for everyone. Carlos Juncal says they’re carrying out a feasibility study which may result in a street collection or an extra bin in the future.
I now must mention the “F-word” of rubbish collection; “Landfill.” We didn’t actually see the Algar landfill deposition cells (consisting of around 4 hectares each) but they’re probably less exciting and rather more depressing.
The Câmara pays a gate fee to Algar for each tonne of waste delivered for treatment plus a landfill tax of €8,8 per tonne (in the UK it’s in excess of 10 times this which is passed on to the national environment agency, for each tonne of waste that ends up in landfill.
However it’s not all bad news: When biodegradable waste (food scraps or paper) is buried in landfill, its decomposition generates a global warming gas called methane.
To prevent methane being released into the atmosphere, the gas is collected within the waste disposal cells and sent by pipeline to an engine for burning as a fuel. This engine is connected to a generator that produces electricity (green energy) replacing the need for fossil fuels.
In a comparison by country of municipal waste recycled and composted, Portugal has improved from only 12% in 2004 to 35% in 2015. Incidentally, the Algarve recycles more packaging per capita than anywhere else in Continental Portugal. Algar is also expected to meet their EU targets set for recycling under the Strategic Plan for Urban Waste 2020 (PERSU 2020).
Maria tells me she hates the sound of breaking glass echoing around the plant when the trucks unload unseparated waste from the lixo bins into the hoppers; reminding her just how often people still mix recyclable materials with general waste.
What of the Tyre Mountain and the stack of mattresses we saw being unloaded at the start – what will happen to them? While the textiles end up in landfill, the metal springs are recycled; as are the tyres, processed in northern Portugal under international guidelines.
Our tour of Algar over, Mike and I agree that thanks to the time and patience of Carlos and Maria, it’s been an education. But this is also part of the ethos of the company and Maria works a lot with schools and a large emphasis is given to educating the public and especially children.
I would urge any educational establishment to contact them and arrange a tour, it will leave a lasting impression.
Before leaving, I ask Carlos if we can all now relax and happily go on producing loads of rubbish as Algar are doing such a good job recycling it? “Of course not!” he tells me. The collection and industrial processing in itself produces waste materials and carbon emissions so cutting these or reducing them would of course help the environment. “So as well as recycling we should all be thinking about how to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce.”
So let this be a call to action. We can all make positive changes. We can think about what we buy, what we use and how we can re-use packaging. Are we separating waste intelligently, not just at home but when we’re away, at the office, on holiday? Let’s all think again and do ourselves a favour!
Guide to Recycling
Yellow – Plastic and Metal
Plastic packaging such as bags, jars, shampoos and detergents, water bottles, juices and oil bottles, styrofoam, yogurt packs, milk cartons, juice and wines, beverage cans and preserves, aluminum trays and aerosols.
Do not deposit
Buckets, video cassettes, pens, cd and dvd, cork stoppers, plastic cutlery, non-packaging plastic, household appliances, batteries, pots and pans, metal tools and cutlery.
Green – Glass
Glass containers such as bottles of olive oil, jars of preserved and sweet, fresh perfume and cosmetics.
Do not deposit
Silverware, cups, jars, crystals, glassware, windows, mirrors, lamps, building materials and drug packages.
Blue – Paper and Cardboard
Cardboard packaging including cereal boxes, egg cartons, paper bags, pizza boxes (no fat), journals and magazines, writing paper, printing paper and envelopes.
Do not deposit
Self-adhesive paper, cement bags, laminated paper, baby wipes and nappies, foil, dirty paper tissues, greasy cartons (such as pizza boxes), kitchen paper, dirty paper napkins and chemical packaging.
Packaging Recovery Note system (PRNs):
There are two recycling symbols on packaging, the first tells you what the material is:
PET, LDPE plastic bags and bubble wrap
HDPE high-density polyethene (like shampoo bottles) cartons, tetrapaks mixed plastics.
Means the company has paid to support recycling, per tonne of material they are putting onto the market.
- Car batteries – they should be disposed of correctly by garage.
- Household and small batteries – look out for disposal bins at supermarkets, parish councils, health centres and fire stations.
- Styrofoam (polystyrene packaging) – put in the yellow bins for recycling.
- Clothes and textiles – textile recycling bins at petrol stations, supermarkets and in town centres.
- Large household items such as furniture and large electrical goods (eg fridges) can be collected from your house by the municipal services, free of charge so there is no need to create an eyesore by dumping them by the bins. The cost of this is covered in your water bill and called Fatura Ambiental. You will only be charged extra if you have more than one collection a month and it is above standard size. (See the numbers at the end of the article.)
- Avoid single use disposable products Re-use plastic bottles and bags Choose to buy brands that support recycling (green dot symbol)
- Separate your waste carefully, including at work
- Also manage your cleaning staff; and if you own a holiday property, make sure guests or tenants are informed of how to recycle properly
- Put car batteries in a normal lixo bin.
Don’t forget it’s your planet too.