Lithuania's waste divide

Written by: Vladislav Vorotnikov | Published:
Fortum Klaipeda is the largest waste incinerating plant in the country

Lithuania seems to be at odds with itself over waste management, striving to reach an ambitious recycling target while at the same time planning to build more incineration plants.

The country is committed to hit a 65% recycling target for household waste in 2020 as part of its pledge to establish a better waste collection and sorting system. However, the government’s intention to build two new incineration plants in the country seems rather out of kilter with this ambition.

According to information provided by the Lithuanian authorities, the country annually generates 1.1 million tonnes of household waste. Around 370,000 tonnes of this was recycled last year at facilities around Lithuania, including the largest plant, in Vilnius.

How Lithuania’s waste management system should be developed has become a battlefield for various political and business groups. Despite the country’s recycling obligations as a member of the European Union, the final word on what to do with household waste remains unsaid.

Advantages of waste incineration

In 2013, electric utility company Fortum Klaipėda pumped €130 million into the construction of its waste incineration plant, originally designed to burn 125,000 tonnes per year – believed to be the entire amount of household waste in the city of Klaipėda – and 125,000 tonnes of biomass. In 2015, the plant was authorised to accept waste from the entire country, allowing it to ditch biomass in favour of burning more household waste.

It turned out that the plant has allowed Lithuania to not only move towards better waste management, but also to solve the problem of its high energy dependence. Following the eventual shutdown of the Ignalina nuclear plant in 2009, the country started importing up to 75% of its power, spurring it to seek ways to reduce this figure.

In Klaipėda, the plant became one of the key suppliers of power, accounting for nearly 55% of the total heat supply to regional customers. In 2014, domestic energy operator Lietuvos energija opened a competitive bidding procedure for the construction of two similar incineration plants, one near Vilnius and one near Kaunas.

Early this year, the Mayor of Vilnius said the city planned to finalise its project in the course of the year, claiming “there is no real alternative for the waste incineration plant in the Lithuanian capital.” Current recycling capacities, according to him, remain insufficient, and caused a “waste crisis” in Vilnius in September 2016. He blamed this on inconsistency among waste collection companies and the significant scaling down of operations at the Vilnius recycling plant, which resulted in 40,000 tonnes of accumulated waste at the city outskirts.

82% of citizens in Lithuania currently sort their waste

82% of Lithuanian residents sort their waste

According to the City Hall, investment in the new incineration plants will reach €356 million and it is believed they will have capacities similar to Fortum Klaipėda, meaning they will jointly be able to handle 450,000-750,000 tonnes of waste annually. At the same time, several non-governmental organisations in Lithuania have raised concerns about the projects, claiming their implementation would mean the country failing to hit its 65% recycling target.

At full capacity, the three plants might reduce the share of waste sent for recycling in Lithuania, unless Lietuvos energija imports waste to be burned. In particular, member of parliament Linas Balsis has lambasted the project, reminding that the EU's Circular Economy Strategy requests Lithuania to establish the full waste management cycle, with proper collecting, sorting and recycling, while incineration, according to him, must be only a last resort.

Additionally, Balsis claims the projects would amount to a misappropriation of a €100 million grant from the European Commission, which was allocated specifically to the building of new recycling systems. He has pledged to ask the Commission to asses whether the incineration plants in Vilnius and Kaunas would comply with EU regulations.

Above all, Balsis says, the economic feasibility of the projects remains questionable due to not all waste being fit for incineration – Fortum Klaipėda is operating below capacity despite it being authorised to accept waste from across Lithuania. He predicts that the new incineration plants will have to import waste, while the country’s problem of inadequate waste management would remain unresolved.

Glitches in the recycling system

The Vilnius recycling plant was a long-awaited facility in the city which started commercial operation in 2016. However, soon after its commission, questions were asked about the plant's sustainability because, it was claimed, its capacity was too low while its tariffs were too high (€40 per tonne) – although, in early 2017, City Hall sought a 23% reduction before awarding a long-term contract until 2036.

In a letter sent in 2016, the plant’s management informed waste collecting firms in Vilnius that it was cutting daily capacity by more than 200% to 70 tonnes. It was explained that the plant simply lacked the storage space to deal with waste coming from the city.

This raised a few eyebrows at the Lithuanian Green Party, as 70 tonnes per day accounts for only about 10% of the household waste generated by the country’s capital. Part of the blame for the plant’s decision to cut capacity was levelled at the collecting firms, which were delivering large batches of unsorted waste.

The local media branded these events a “waste crisis”, with nearly 40,000 tonnes of unsorted waste having to be removed from the capital (cited, as reported above, by the city’s Mayor as justification for a new incineration plant). It was decided to transport it to the local city of Visaginas for temporary storage, which quickly sparked protests among residents there, who demanded “to keep the mountains of garbage from the capital” away from their city.

Meanwhile, environmental activist Eugene Shuklin alleged that JSC Vespila, the company authorised to store the waste, was on the verge of bankruptcy, leading to concerns that the city of Visaginas would be left with warehouses full of abandoned waste.

Despite all the above controversy, it is believed the waste recycling industry in Lithuania could receive a strong impetus for development from new waste-sorting projects, and there is real progress in this direction. Recent opinion polls showed that up to 82% of the country’s population sort their waste, with 42% doing so regularly. According to the Green Party, in recent years the country has built 10 waste-sorting plants with a combined value of some €114 million.

There is real hope, then, that Lithuania’s waste management situation may one day change for the better.

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