All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

All the garbage of Barcelona

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The garbage inlets in front of Sant Catalina market

The garbage inlets in front of Santa Caterina market

Barcelona could be the most progressive of Spanish cities and has everything you expect from a European city: great art and food, unique architecture and culture, as well as wonderful urban design, street life, transit, biking, ecotourism, solar energy…it’s all there, and I hope to get to describe that at some later time.  But here I want to describe something that caught my eye: how Barcelona handles garbage.  It sucks, literally, and that’s pretty cool.

I first saw them in front of the new Santa Caterina market, two strange cylinders sticking out of the sidewalk.  They’re about the size of a domestic water heater, and have a small trap door at the front.  This is where you put your garbage: one for organics, the other for true garbage.  What is different here, though, is that these cylinders aren’t garbage cans: they are inlet tubes connected to an underground network of vacuum pipes.  Put in your bag, and whoosh, the vacuum sucks it away and conveys it to a receiving station.

This system has several advantages: it is quiet and efficient, and the inlets take up far less room than big garbage or recycling bins on crowded streets.  And, mostly, there’s no need of garbage trucks; this is a particular advantage in the old historic city, where narrow, curvy streets can’t accommodate large trucks, but where a lot of garbage is produced since the residential density is high. And here at the market, where a lot of organic waste is generated, it’s wonderfully appropriate.  But doing without the pollution and noise of the garbage trucks is a plus anywhere.

Happy garbage nerd on his holidays

Happy garbage nerd on his holidays

In Barcelona I saw these tubes in other neighbourhoods as well, in Poblenou and Raval.  These used to be run-down areas, and the new systems is one of the way that neighbourhoods can be improved.  The system is not perfect, of course; there is still a need of street cleaners, as apparently people still put their garbage on or around the inlets instead of inside them.  And of course, installing them involves a major retrofit project that can’t be done overnight.  So there are still a number of small garbage trucks going around other neighbourhoods (such as Poble Sec, where we stayed).  These are pretty fun to watch, actually – there’s even a YouTube video of one of them picking up garbage.  A number of these trucks are now powered by hybrid drives, making them quieter and reducing pollution.

I never did find out where the garbage in El Raval or La Ribera is sucked to, but the destination in the Forum area of Poblenou is pretty obvious: the large waste treatment plant near the waterfront.  This plant, made up of an incinerator and an MBT facility, shares the waterfront with a marina and the largest single solar collector in all of Europe.  At the MBT plant organic waste (food and garden waste) produces methane, while paper, metals, etc, are removed from the waste and recycled.  The incinerator takes care of the rest.  And, of course, this being Europe, the plant produces both electrical power and heat for the district.  But it is unique in two ways: first, this being warm and sunny Spain, there is as much of a need for cooling as for heating, and the treatment plant provides both through its network system.  Second, the combination of MBT and incinerator means that very high energy efficiencies are possible (in Metro Vancouver, the controversy was an either-or, MBT or incinerator; nobody seemed to have considered the possibility of the combination of both).

The incinerator and MBT plant in the Forum area

The incinerator and MBT plant in the Forum area

In practice, that means that in the Poblenou-Forum area, your household, one of over six thousand , gets air conditioning in summer and heating in winter thanks to the garbage that has been whisked away in pneumatic tubes.  That prevents the release of over 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, more than halving the amount of fuel that would otherwise be needed.  And you thought garbage was boring?  Not in Barcelona.


The technical details (numbers for nerds):

The vacuum system:  3.6 km of pipe, 125 outlets, 91 receiving tanks, 2 lines (garbage and green waste); 20 to 30 kPa vacuum can propel bags at 70 km/hr over 2 kilometers.  400,000 residents served since 2002.  System by Swedish company Envac.

The waste plant: Incinerator (built 1975) and mechanical-biological treatment plant (built 2006) in Forum area treat about 360,000 tonnes MSW/yr, and produces 24 MW electrical power, 180,000 MWh/yr.  Biogas production from organic waste: 108,000,000 nm3/yr.  Paper, cardboard, glass, PET, HDPE, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, plastic film, cartons, recovered from waste.  Heat from process recovered for district heating.

District heating:  69 MW absorption chillers (producing water at 5.5C), 47 MW heaters (90C); 84% overall efficiency;  13 km distribution pipeline; cooling and heating for 6000 residences, plus office buildings, a hospital, shopping centres; reduction of 15,000 tons CO2/yr.

The garbage: Barcelona residents produce about 500 kg per year per capita, and pay about 75 Euro per household.  Landfills used to be prevalent, over 1000 uncontrolled landfills in Catalunia in 1991, all closed since 2000; 30 are left, all regulated.  Since 2000, landfilled portion shrank from 70% to 30% in 2008; source separation increased from 12% to 32% in the same period.

The district heating and cooling system

The district heating and cooling system

More details can be found here, here, here, and here.

Written by enviropaul

March 22, 2016 at 7:31 pm

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