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Separating food waste is a relatively new practice in Lithuania. Dealing with it is one of the hardest tasks for municipalities – particularly in the early stages. Since 2019, as per the national waste management plan, cities with over 50,000 inhabitants were required to start implementing a separate collection system for this waste. 

Recycling food waste is also essential in order to reduce emissions. Burying organic trash in landfills emits methane – one of the most hazardous greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Measurements from Eurostat show the progress Lithuania has made in recycling municipal waste. From no recycling in 2004, the Baltic state reached a 45 percent level in 2020. While separation works in several West European countries, the same can’t be said about the eastern states, where it is still taking the first steps. Giving new life to organic waste is also one of the courses of actions to be taken. 

“Municipalities tend to be resistant. Such a transition doesn’t only entail investment in equipment and infrastructure, but a lot of work needs to done on changing people’s habits too,” explains Domantas Tracevičius from VšĮ Žiedinė ekonomika – a circular economy NGO. 

Adapting facilities

Six cities were involved in this first phase of the initiative, with Alytus – the smallest of them – becoming a model for the bigger ones as well as other towns outside of the country that still have to undergo the transition. 

“What they did is very simple. Their Microbiological Treatment Plant – MBT – was new, and instead of building a new plant, they simply retrofitted it, adopting the existing equipment to separate waste, ” says Tracevičius. 

domantas-tracevicius

Domantas Tracevičius

Waste management and circular economy expert

He founded the climate NGO VšĮ “Žiedinė ekonomika”.

In his opinion, that’s the way that could help other small municipalities to transition. “It is just a matter of adding some tunnels for collecting this kind of waste separately. I personally advocated for this solution and the government gave it consideration, as now it is in its implementation phase,” he adds. 

The Lithuanian government embarked on a plan for an investment project, with funding – up to five million euros per plant – for upgrading the facilities, depending on the size and the amount of waste they can process. 

How is food waste processed? 

Biological treatment facilities can manage waste in two ways, either by composting it or by anaerobic digestion. This latter process comprising compressing waste in a container with no oxygen. This way, waste is broken down by microorganisms; the remaining substance can be reused as fertilizer. What’s more, methane emissions can be captured to generate biogas that can be used as a source of energy. Processing this waste is thus a key aspect to shifting towards a circular economy model.

In addition to that, regulation can help too. Tracevičius: “Derogating from animal byproduct regulations helps. It states that this waste must be treated – at a 70 degrees C temperature – for one hour and shredded to 12 millimeters.  The heating part is energy-intensive and technologically difficult. As a result, several countries, including Germany and Austria, heat at lower temperatures. Italy applies 55 degrees C for three days.”

Despite a lower temperature, the results are the same. According to the European Compost Network, 55 degrees C is enough to kill bacteria. This means that waste treatment facilities do not have to invest in expensive equipment for heating. Less infrastructure also leads to fewer costs in the bills of local citizens.  

Results from Alytus

Alytus invested just under a million euros to buy a new shredder and two sieves – which are capable of separating organic fractions from the tiny residual microplastics. In 2018, the country had to deal with 37,000 tonnes of residual waste. Three years later, the amount was 6 thousand tonnes lower – 4.5 thousand tonnes of food waste was separated by the new plant. The overall amount of waste was also teduced.  

One of the sieves operating at the Alytus plant – © Domantas Tracevičius

“Separate collection of food waste also motivates people to sort it all out.  Food waste is the most difficult chore given that separating packaging gets rather easy. Organic food waste might contain moisture, tends to stink, and so on. When citizens understand how to manage this kind of waste, then they commit to sorting out other waste better as well. It has a spillover effect, which produces less waste in total,” Tracevičius stresses. 

A model for export 

What the circular economy expert advocates for is to follow the example of Alytus in other parts of the country too. “What matters here is the transformation of infrastructure. With just one million euros, there is the chance to reconvert the plant into one that can handle two types of waste flows. As in, the biological part from the residual waste – that can still guarantee that some biogas is produced – and the processing of organic waste too,” he adds. 

As more MBT plants are built in Eastern European countries, it is hoped that the Alytus model can be exported abroad as well.

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