Health

Belgium and Germany deal with ‘unimaginable’ piles of post-flood trash

After the deluge comes the garbage.

German and Belgian authorities are struggling to clear mountains of waste — washing machines, smashed furniture, paper, cars, plastics, chemicals, sewage and building debris — washed up by this month’s catastrophic floods. The tsunami of trash is so vast that the main priority is getting rid of the stuff before it poses a risk to human health and not recycling and reusing it as called for by EU guidelines.

Only “a small quantity” of post-flood trash in the Belgian city of Liège is being sent to recycling facilities, said Jean-Jacques De Paoli, spokesperson for the local waste management association Intradel.

“We sort what we can and when we can,” De Paoli said. The cleanup managed to set aside metals, electric and electronic waste — like fridges and washing machines — some construction waste and biowaste like trees. But most of the waste is going “either to our landfill or our incinerator.”

The flood created a mishmash of garbage that’s essentially impossible to segregate.

“The main issue is the heterogenous mixture of waste,” said Patrick Hasenkamp, vice president of the German Association of Local Public Utilities (VKU) and head of the waste management services of the city of Münster. The waste is not only soaked or mixed with sludge, but also contaminated with feces or chemicals. That makes sorting extremely difficult. “We can only separate rough aggregates, such as building rubble … or electric equipment.”

Due to contamination, reuse and recycling is almost always ruled out — a large part of the bulky waste has to be incinerated, said the Federal Association of the German Waste, Water and Raw Materials Management Industry (BDE). 

That’s going to be an issue because German incinerators already operate at over 95 percent of capacity, said Hasenkamp.

“To incinerate all the waste, we would technically need an additional waste incineration plant,” he said, adding: “The disposal may even take a number of years.”

The quantities are vast.

Germany has to sort through and dispose of “unimaginable additional amounts of waste” caused by the floods, Hasenkamp said. The full scale will only be clear once the job is done. The BDE estimates that the floods created hundreds of thousands of tons of bulky waste.

In Belgium, it is estimated that the floods generated about 1.5 million tons of waste in just a few days. That’s the equivalent of three-quarters of the average annual volume of waste generated by households in Wallonia.

“About 2,000 tons of waste were generated in 24 hours” in the region of Liège, De Paoli said. There was so much additional garbage that authorities had to dump it on an unused highway and at an old industrial site.

The floods also wreaked havoc on cars. “We estimate that between 40,000 and 50,000 vehicles are now out of use” because of the flooding in Belgium, said Cédric Slegers of Comet, a Belgian company that collects and recycles end-of-life vehicles, small electronic appliances, as well as metals and tires.

Now that the floods have abated, the key is to get rid of the debris as quickly as possible.

“There is a public health risk for the population” if waste containing hazardous substances is not removed rapidly and “a risk of polluting the environment,” said Slegers. “Therefore, the priority for us is collection.”

Leaked substances also risk polluting water supplies. Bonn’s public utility company, which is also responsible for the water supply in affected areas, recommended people to boil any water before use, as it “cannot guarantee that it hasn’t been contaminated.”

Didier Hellin, director general of the public water utility in the Belgian province of Namur, said some water treatment plants had to be shut down because of the flooding.

“Floods carry sludge, which damages wastewater treatment plants,” he said, noting that a number of plants will have to be repaired which could take some time. If the water is not properly treated, “there is a risk of harming the aquatic environment,” especially as we’re facing a “significant oil pollution” from things like broken oil heaters.

However, the scale of pollution is mitigated by the vast quantities of water. “The pollution is very diluted so the impact can be limited,” Hellin said.

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