Riga gets real

Written by: Vladislav Vorotnikov | Published:

With more than one eye on the European Union’s environmental directives, Latvia has established a waste-sorting plant outside its capital city. But there may be trouble ahead, not least the inability of the country’s recyclers to process anywhere near the volumes intended to exit the facility. Vladislav Vorotnikov reports

In October 2015, a group of local investors launched a waste-sorting plant at Latvia’s biggest landfill site, five kilometres from the capital, Riga. This is believed to be an important milestone for the country’s waste management industry, as the new facility, Getlini EKO, is able to sort 300,000 tonnes of waste annually – 40% of the country’s total household waste. It is hoped that the project will be copied – the construction of similar plants at 11 other landfills across the country has been mooted – but, as ever, the issue of profitability remains a challenge.

Latvia boasts 1.9 million citizens who annually produce 600,000-700,000 tonnes of waste. According to official data, only 10-15% of this is sent for recycling. The country has several dozens of small processing companies, specialising in recycling certain types of waste. Most of them are located near Riga, where the population amounts to 640,000 citizens, with almost 900,000 more in the suburbs.

According to Getlini EKO investor and operator Vides Pakalpojumu Grupa, Latvia needs to fulfil the obligations of Europe’s environmental directives.

“The plant will be the largest and most modern complex in the Baltic states and one of the largest in north-eastern Europe. This project can be considered as a state-level initiative, since the launching of production allowed Latvia to comply with the requirements of European directives in the area of waste management, which should be implemented by 2020. Getlini landfill today is dealing with almost half of all Latvian wastes,” says Andris Ameriks, the vice-mayor of Riga City Council and a representative of Getlini EKO’s management.

Changes of technological process

According to Imants Stirans, chairman of the board at the plant, the €10.2 million facility significantly changed the technological process for waste management at what is said to be the biggest landfill in the country.

“Previously we used a technology of waste deposition in bio-degradation cells where we put everything, so biogas was extracted from only 30%, while the rest was ballast. Now all waste that is delivered to the Getlini landfill is sorted into the three main groups,” explains Stirans.

The first part is the waste that can be burned to obtain electricity and heat which the company sells to Riga. The second part consists of waste that is sent for recycling – this includes glass, metal, paper and building materials. Finally, the third part is biodegradable waste that is used for the further production of biogas.

It is worth noting that biogas from the plant fuels the equipment used in wastewater treatment, as well as heating the greenhouses at the plant, where the workers are growing 330 tonnes of tomatoes per year.

“We work using only modern methods, creating isolated sites in order not to clutter up the ground water with infiltration,” says Rudolf Kalējs, head of the plant’s wastewater treatment department.

The quality of water in Latvia is a sore subject and the plant is located near the Daugava river, the largest in the country. In Soviet times it was surrounded by numerous dumps so it used to have hundreds of tonnes of dirty water dumped into it each year. Today, a drainage layer under the landfill protects the river.

“This plant is one of the first in the Baltic states to use optical scanners. Analysis of the spectrum of light determines what kind of material we see; plastic or something else. We are sorting plastics with the use of airflow. We also are separating ferrous and non-ferrous metals in different containers,” says Guntars Levits, a representative of Vides.

In total the plant is expected to send about 90% of all waste to be recycled, and the local authorities forecast Riga’s waste recycling capacity to rise by an additional 150,000-200,000 tonnes in the coming years. However, while the project promises to be successful locally, it cannot resolve the national waste management problem.

Challenges at every turn

Industry pundits say the construction of Riga’s sorting facility was necessary in a country where 77% of all waste has traditionally been buried, with volumes rising constantly.

According to environmental solutions company Vides Risinajumi, the main crisis was the rise in the number of hazardous substances left at the dumps – a real problem for the Latvian ecology in the near future.

Still, the investment feasibility of the project remains questionable, due to the fact that it requires a rapid rise of waste processing capacities within the coming years. Local experts say that currently all the recycling companies in Latvia can together handle only 40,000-50,000 tonnes of waste in total.

“Representatives of the project claim they are going to supply about 270,000 tonnes of sorted wastes annually to the recycling companies. So far, it is not clear where these companies will be found. In neighbouring countries, such problems are solved when the investors create a cluster for sorting and recycling capacities at the same place. Here no intentions for the construction of recycling plants so far have been declared,” comments Alexis Krastejs, a waste market analyst.

There is another threat to the plant – a problem in waste collecting, says Askold Kliavinsh, the head of Riga’s environmental department.

“The city’s authorities plan to divide the city in three sections, conduct a tender to grant the right to collect garbage in each one to only one company. The threat here is that each company will construct its own sorting and recycling lines. In that case the Getlini landfill with the plant will close within the coming one to two decades as it will receive only wastes that can be buried and cannot be recycled,” he says.

What other choice is there?

An alternative is the creation of one state-owned operator that would collect waste from all over the city and send it on to Getlini EKO. However, that would require a large investment. Given that the debate is being conducted in the private sector between waste collecting organisations and the Getlini plant, Riga’s leaders are so far staying calm about the situation.

The positive in all this is that the project’s commercial prospects – assuming all the above is resolved – shouldn’t be too big a hurdle. Looking at similar initiatives
in neighbouring countries, it could be
safely said that the potential profitability of Getlini EKO will be clearly seen within two to three years – provided that Latvia can increase its recycling capacity by more than 60-70%.

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