The Sofia waste incineration project − many questions and no clear answers

Photo: BGNES

The Sofia Municipality and Toplofikaciya Sofia (the district heating company) have been considering the possibility to launch waste incineration project since 2008. Since then, however, the municipal authorities have not taken into account the positive developments in the waste management legislation in the EU and the good practices in this field in some member states such as Italy, Slovenia and Belgium resulting in high percentage of recycled waste. That is why the residents of Sofia have been opposing the plans of the local authorities to build waste incineration facilities in Sofia Thermal Power Plant. In their view, this is a dangerous plan that would result in waste of energy, raw materials and public financing. Residents of Sofia contend that the waste incineration facilities will be another source of fine particulate matter and other harmful substances in Bulgaria’s capital where high levels of air pollution are registered on a regular basis. Moreover, this investment is estimated at EUR 150 million, of which EUR 140 million will be borrowed by the European Investment Bank and the rest of the financing is expected to be allotted under the Environment 2014-2020 Operational Programme.

On one hand, we will build the abovementioned waste incineration facilities and increase the level of air pollution through the emission of dangerous toxic substances. On the other hand, we will have to pay off a bank loan, Antoaneta Yotova, expert in environmental policies told Radio Bulgaria. The authorities want to receive financing under the old rules and regulations, which are part of the 2014-2020 programming period. However, the new legislation of the EU in relation to waste management will be enforced in 2021 and will not allow financing of such projects. However, we will be in violation of some regulations during the construction and later during the exploitation of the facilities and as a result, the EU will initiate infringement procedures against our country that will be again at the expense of the Bulgarian taxpayers. On one hand, we are facing financial problems and on the other hand our health is at risk.

The waste incineration project envisages the construction of a facility for incineration of processed waste that will provide alternative fuel- the so-called RDF (Refuse-derived fuel. It will be used by Sofia Thermal Power plant as an alternative of the natural gas and as a result, this company will save between EUR 12 million and EUR 15 million per year. According to the new 2030 waste management target of the EU, separation of waste must become mandatory and 65% all waste quantities must be recycled. If the Sofia authorities launch the waste incineration facility, they will not be able to meet the new targets, because 50% of the whole waste quantities (180,000 tons) will be burned in the new incinerator per year, because this facility will not be able to work at a lower capacity. In other words, Sofia will have to receive waste from other Bulgarian cities and the sludge from the waste-water treatment plants in Sofia will be probably burnt in the new incinerator was well.

The claims that if we burn waste, we will not deposit it are also controversial, because according to experts, 25% of the incinerated quantities (36,000 tons a year) turn into ashes and slag and must be deposited as well. The facility will produce 22 tons of toxic ashes a day which must be deposited in remote and special waste repositories in Germany which will raise the costs significantly and increase the risk of accidents during transportation. The incineration of the so-called RDF waste was not included and evaluated as a new source of pollution in the two consecutive programmes for management of air quality in Sofia in the period 2011-2020. That is why, if the project does not go under some changes, its implementation will not only be contrary to EU policies and legislation through hampering separation of waste and waste recycling for decades to come, but it will be an extreme waste of public money and resources. Tens of thousands of tons of valuable raw materials such as plastic, paper, textile, wood, organic waste and cardboard will be destroyed through the waste incineration. These materials could be recycled, used for the production of a compost or biogas instead which means more revenues for the municipality. Danita Zarichinova from Za Zemyata Environmental Association contends that the money can be used for other purposes that will not cost that much:

This is an old project indeed. Danita points out and adds. Last year we submitted a vision for waste management in Sofia. It envisages a complete change in the waste collection and waste transportation system.

On the other hand, the number of municipal councilors who disagree with the waste incineration project has increased and some of them brought the case to court, because of the rejection of a referendum on this topic. That is why the environmentalists are asking all candidates who want to become mayor of Sofia what they think about the waste incineration project and so far only one candidate opposed to the idea for construction of the incineration facility.

English version: Kostadin Atanasov

Photos: courtesy of Antoaneta Yotova and Danita Zarichinova

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