More than a pile of old rubbish


Cyprus is not number one at many things. We don’t produce the smartest students, we haven’t got a great football team and we’ll never win the Eurovision (thank God for that, I can just imagine how much we’d gloat). So I suppose we should be rather chuffed that Cypriots produce the largest volume of domestic waste per capita in Europe. At least we’re number one at something.
Each Cypriot produces well over half a tonne of rubbish every year, most of which ends up in municipal dumpsites. Add to that the two million plus tonnes of construction and mining waste that ends up being thrown away each year and the significant volumes of sewage and liquid wastes produced in areas not covered by wastewater treatment systems and you end up with a mess of garbage. And a very disgusting one too, I would imagine.
Much of this garbage, of course, could be treated to produce new materials or used to produce energy or fertilizer. The EU has set targets for this but Cyprus is nowhere near reaching them. Often, there is good reason for this- for example: the financial costs of shipping waste paper for recycling (since no plants here can deal with it) are twice as high as the revenue the material can bring in when it’s sold. On an island without the industrial infrastructure to deal with them, waste materials need to be sent elsewhere to be recycled, often at huge costs.
Incinerating the waste to produce heat and electricity has often been suggested as the way forward but the capital costs are high and nobody wants an incinerator near their home. And so, with the government faffing about to little or no effect, the majority of our waste still ends up in municipal dumps- no more than holes in the ground.
These waste dumps are ticking time bombs. Toxic liquids can seep down into the underground water while methane gas, produced with the breakdown of the waste, can catch fire or explode. The risks to the environment and human health are significant.
There several such dumps in Cyprus. There are also a hundred or so local dumpsites as well as perhaps thousands of areas polluted by fly-tipping and uncontrolled dumping.  I have even seen abandoned cars in fields and on mountainsides and electrical appliances in riverbeds.
On Saturday, I was at an event here in Limassol organised by ETEK, the Scientific and Technical Chamber, where a series of speakers underlined just how serious the problem is and offered some ideas as to how Cyprus could manage all this rubbish. The problems were highlighted as were some of the root causes.
Then the solutions were suggested and the buzzwords were thrown around- gasification, pyrolysis, integrated waste management, refuse derived fuel, separation at source, blah, blah, blah. So many possible solutions; so little time and money to see them through.
It wasn’t always this complicated. In the old days. when people were poorer, waste management and recycling were ways of life. Watermelon rinds and orange peels were used to make preserves, scraps of food were given to chickens, pigs or dogs and animal manure, garden cuttings and potato peels were all spread over the land as fertilizer. Nappies were made out of cloth and were washed and reused and construction materials were sourced from demolished buildings and used again.
Back then, people reused and recycled not because the EU demanded it, not because the law imposed it, not because consultants like myself advocated long-term solutions or waxed lyrical about preserving the environment for future generations, but because it was the only thing that made sense, because it was too costly to do otherwise and because they couldn’t just bury it all in a hole in the ground and forget about it.
Now we just use things and throw them away without a second thought. Plastics have entered our lives and we’re stumped as to how to deal with them. Composting just isn’t done anymore, even by families with large gardens. Everything comes individually packaged. Our waste is piling up, our countryside is being sullied with garbage, our aquifers are being polluted and our health is at risk, while the government departments argue over who should pay for what. Soon the EU fines will start coming thick and fast and health scares will be an everyday occurrence. And, sadly, only then will the government and the people of Cyprus realize the true value and cost of all those millions of tons of waste. Sometimes being number one isn’t something to be proud of.

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