By Cecilia Allen
Facing a nearly full landfill in 2002, Spain’s Gipuzkoa Province proposed building two new incinerators. Citizen opposition was immediate and widespread. In response, some municipalities in the Province decided not only to reject the incinerator plan, but to implement an alternative to burying and burning. Usurbil was the first. This town of 6,000 people established a door to-door collection system of source-separated waste streams, including organic materials. In just six weeks, the amount of collected waste destined for landfills dropped by 80 percent. The resource recovery rate registered in the first year was 82 percent. In 2008, before door-to-door collection started, Usurbil was taking 175 tons per month to the landfill. One year later, the amount had dropped to 25 tons.
Each bin and each hook have a code that identifies the household that uses them. This allows the government to monitor separation in each household. If the collector identifies a stream that does not correspond to that collection day, s/he puts a sticker with a red cross on the bin and does not collect that waste. The information is given to the administration office, and the household receives a notice explaining why the waste was not collected. If someone misses the door-to-door collection, there are four emergency centers to drop off waste. There is also a drop-off site that takes bulky waste, electric and electronic devices, and other waste not covered by the door-to-door collection, free of charge.
Hernani promotes home composting throughout the municipality. In rural areas, home composting is mandatory, and other streams are either collected door-to-door or taken to drop-off centers. Residents of the town can sign up for a composting class, request a home composting manual, and receive a compost bin for free. There is a phone line to get composting advice, and there are compost specialists who can visit households in need of assistance. People who sign up to compost at home receive a 40 percent discount on the municipal waste management fee. Source separation is clearly reflected in the material that Hernani takes to the compost plant, which consists of—on average—only 1.5 percent impurities (non-organics and other pollutants).
In the first full month of the door-to-door collection, the level of non-recyclable residuals dropped by 80 percent, and the total waste managed decreased by 27 percent. In 2010, the municipality landfilled 53.8 percent less waste than in 2009 (5,219 tons in 2009 and 2,412 tons in 2010), and door-to-door collection had only begun in May.
The governments that have implemented door-to-door collection programs have promoted the creation of citizens' committees to monitor their implementation. Moreover, local Zero Zabor (zero waste) groups have emerged in these cities, building on earlier anti-incinerator movements. The different local groups are working together in Gipuzkoa Zero Zabor. In a few years, these volunteer activists have advanced the conversation from opposing incinerators to promoting an authentic zero waste strategy that focuses on preventing waste—through changes in design, production, and consumption—and recovering all materials discarded in a safe and sustainable manner.
Hernani joined other municipalities and groups opposing the incinerators and promoting the extension of door-to-door collection to the entire Gipuzkoa province. Despite the success of the door-to-door collection systems implemented so far, the construction of one incinerator in Zubieta is underway. Many municipalities in the region are reluctant to opt for zero waste strategies, and this threatens to undermine the progress being made in cities that use these strategies. However, after the municipal elections in July 2011, the political scenario changed.
The groups supportive of a five-year moratorium on the construction of the incinerator began to administer most of the municipalities as well as the provincial government. Given this context, it is likely that door to-door collection systems will continue to spread.
Usurbil, Hernani, and nearby Oiartzun have reduced the residual waste per capita in a very short time, in contrast to municipalities where no changes in waste collection practices were made. The fourth municipality to adopt door-to-door separated waste collection, Antzuola, has reported that 90 percent of the discards collected are separated for recovery, and residuals represent only 10 percent of the total collected there.
Skeptics of source separation maintain that the costs increase prohibitively when moving from one-stream collection to a differentiated collection system. Although collection expenses do tend to increase in most cases, that is not the whole story: the differentiated collection increases resource recovery, which offsets disposal costs and creates a source of income through the sale of recyclables and organics. Usurbil compared the expenses of both collection systems for a full year and found the new system to be less expensive than the previous one. In the case of Hernani, the cost has increased slightly for the door-to-door collection at least in part due to the need to transport the organics to a distant plant.
It is also important to note that the door-to door collection and recycling system has the additional benefit of creating more jobs than waste management strategies that are based on mass burying or burning; the extra money required to support the system provides a significant boost to the local economy. In total, 16 jobs were created in Hernani by door-to-door collection.
So far, Usurbil, Oiartzun, Hernani, and Antzuola have begun implementing door-to-door collection of source separated waste, all with great results. Both governments and community groups are showing the positive changes produced by these strategies in terms of sustainable materials management, pollution prevention, and the local economy. Moreover, what they are showing is that a community-based waste management system can bring impressive results in a short period, if only governments dared to lead the way and count on their citizens.
Copyleft GAIA. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to GAIA.