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Sorting food and kitchen waste

Alytus region has been sorting food and kitchen waste for five years. Is there something to learn from the pioneers?

Image source: © Canva / Canva
Materiały Prasowe,
20.01.2024 19:59

According to estimates, one Lithuanian citizen generates about 41 kilograms of food waste a year. The member states of the European Union (EU), including Lithuania, have to separate kitchen and food waste from the general municipal waste. Even though the majority of Lithuanians were ordered to do so only at the end of 2023, the Alytus region’s residents have been sorting the aforementioned types of waste since the end of 2018. What can be learned from the pioneers?

Director of the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre Algirdas Reipas says that the decision to start sorting kitchen and food waste was made because reaching the set goals (increase the collection of sorted waste to 80%, decrease environmental pollution from waste and landfill gases, and avoid increasing waste management costs if possible) would’ve been impossible otherwise.

"So we decided to create an infrastructure that would allow for the most effective way of meeting said goals using the latest EU experience. It was not easy, because we were not only the first attempting such a task, but also alone – there wasn’t, actually, there still isn’t, a clear governmental policy, systematic outlook, harmonized requirements, and monitoring; therefore, every region is forced to look for own solutions and learn from own mistakes," he explained.

"By building on our experience and the experience of other countries, we clearly realized that the process was unavoidable and necessary. Not sorting food waste and throwing it away with other waste results in huge losses – both in terms of underutilized energy resources and waste management costs. Because kitchen waste, thrown into any other waste containers, contaminates other types of waste and makes it unsuitable for reuse or recycling," Reipas continued.

Not every solution paid off

Municipalities organize the collection of food waste differently. For example, Vilnius residents will have to use special orange bags and dispose of it in mixed waste containers, at least for now. And in Marijampole, special food waste containers have been introduced.

"No more than 40% of residents use this system, the amount of waste collected does not even reach 50% of total generated food waste, and you need to build separate devices with an automatic sorting function based on the colour of waste bags. The waste cannot be pressed and crushed because many bags become loose and the contents spill out. The food waste mass cannot be treated with abrasive methods – only using high pressure to prevent the formation of microplastics. Thus, about 50% of all collected food and kitchen waste remains in bags and is not treated biologically, and the recycling of bags with biological impurities is very expensive or downright impossible.

As you can see, the process is complicated and inefficient in terms of environmental protection and economy – it allows for the collection of just 15% of biological waste," he said.

For this reason, the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre chose a different approach – separate food and kitchen waste collection.

"We began by purchasing special containers for food and kitchen waste and distributing them among the locals who live in private houses. Together with the containers, people also got a bucket for collecting kitchen waste and a separate container for used cooking oil and fat. The second stage was to place separate containers near blocks of flats. Last year, residents of apartment buildings also received special buckets for collecting food waste in the kitchen. The idea of giving out dedicated containers for cooking oil was abandoned since it hadn’t paid off," Reipas noted.

Throwing food waste directly into the bucket is not recommended; therefore, the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre offered putting it into bags, but encouraged residents not to buy new bags and asked them to use plastic or paper bags that are used to pack food instead. During waste treatment, plastic bags can be separated automatically.

Since the start of the new initiative, food waste has been collected, transported, and treated separately – it is not mixed with any other types of waste.

"The 2021–2027 national waste prevention and management plan’s goal to provide biological waste collection means to households in urbanized areas has been pretty much reached in the Alytus region. We have also started collecting food and kitchen waste from at least 300 households. In the remaining rural territories, food waste is not being collected for several reasons. Most rural residents compost biodegradable waste and/or feed food waste to domestic animals, thus collecting food and kitchen waste from small rural areas would not be economically feasible at this time. They are allowed to throw non-compostable waste into containers for mixed municipal waste," Reipas explained.

It takes time to get used to

According to him, in order for people to start sorting, it takes a lot of persuading, educating, and control. You need to explain to them that food waste containers are not just for food, but also for all the waste that is generated in the kitchen when preparing food, i.e. paper towels, paper napkins, paper smeared with oil and other foodstuffs, coffee and tea grounds, houseplants and, of course, food leftovers.

Getting used to the changes was a matter of time, communication, and educational work, but the effort has paid off. "We have noticed that, having started to sort food waste, people feel the difference and see a decrease in food waste. This motivates them to keep sorting," he claimed.

"Our controllers are constantly checking the containers and if they find improperly sorted waste, they put a sticker with a warning "Do not empty". So, let’s say, if potato or orange peels are found in a mixed waste container, it is not emptied – the resident has to sort the waste, and it will be collected during the next routine pick-up.

The residents are also regularly reminded of the necessity to pull the containers out for emptying. The measures may not be pleasant, but they sure are effective. Surely, no disciplinary actions will give a desirable effect if the resident lacks a certain frame of mind and motivation to sort," Reipas insisted.

It turns out that many residents met the separate collection of waste with a conviction that they ate everything and did not produce food waste. For this reason, when communicating it is imperative to stress that food and kitchen waste entails all the by-products of food preparation.

"We have noticed that people actually throw away huge amounts of unconsumed food or foodstuffs. Companies throw away even more – our employees had to empty a container full of dumplings or sliced bread, for example. As one driver once admitted, it really hurts," Reipas added.

A dramatic increase

In five years, the amount of food and kitchen waste collected from the region’s residents has increased hundredfold, Reipas said. In 2018, 23 tons were collected, in 2023 – 3,592 tons.

"When we began collecting food waste separately, the amount of mixed waste has been decreasing noticeably – by about 2,500 tons a year. In 2023, we collected approximately 10,000 tons less of mixed waste than five years ago. The same trend is seen when collecting food waste from legal persons. In the Alytus region we started doing it 2021," he said.

All of the separately collected food and kitchen waste is treated using the dry anaerobic method in the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre’s biological treatment facilities. The Alytus Region Waste Management Centre is the largest food waste treatment company in Lithuania.

The Centre treats over 20,000 tons of food waste a year to make biogas, electricity, and the final product – high-quality compost for soil improvement. In a year, the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre generates about 3m kWh of electricity – twice the amount required to power all of the company’s divisions, devices, and equipment.

The food waste is collected by waste carriers that won tenders and have vehicles suitable for this purpose. Waste collection schedules are posted on the Alytus Region Waste Management Centre’s website (www.aratc.lt), also – in the media (at the beginning of each year), and are sent to residents together with invoices.

DELFI reminds that last year the European Commission released a statement regarding the implementation of waste management goals set in the Directive on packing and packaging waste and the Directive on waste in the member states. The member states that may not reach the set goals have been given recommendations on how to improve their waste management systems.

The main recommendations for Lithuania are related to promoting municipal waste and packaging reuse systems, developing the system of sorted waste collection, increasing the capabilities of biological and food waste treatment, meeting sorted waste goals in municipalities and enforcing them via financial stimulus or fines, and implementing awareness raising campaigns for various social groups. The other municipalities, too, will eventually have to start implementing said goals.

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