Barcelona’s dirty secret: are we recycling enough?

A reporter’s quest to understand how our waste treatment system works

Ecoparc2 waste management plant in Montcada i Reixac, near Barcelona (by Alicia Egorov)
Ecoparc2 waste management plant in Montcada i Reixac, near Barcelona (by Alicia Egorov) / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

May 21, 2022 10:13 AM

My mom, an early childhood teacher here in Barcelona and the quintessential tree-hugger, had a game she used to have us play in the classroom. We’d have to sort - meticulously cleaned, I should note - waste: tetra pak, cans, and plastic bottles were placed atop a cutout of a yellow recycling bin, cardboard and newspaper on a blue one, glass on a green one - this was long before the brown containers for organic waste began to spring up on street corners too.

Thus began my quest, over a quarter of a century later, to gauge the state of recycling in Catalonia. How does our system work, and how efficient is it? And what about us residents - has the impending climate crisis been a call to action, encouraging us all to do our part, no matter how small? Or, as I feared, judging by the poorly sorted waste in my local bins, have most people succumbed to apathy?  

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My first stop was a “punt verd” in the Catalan capital’s Sants district, where I met up with Joan Cañellas from the council’s cleaning and waste management department. Smoking cigarettes and a bit camera shy, Joan opened up after some small chat and jokes about my own clumsy on-screen debut.  

“Punt verds”, literally “green points” in Catalan, are for items that shouldn’t go in recycling bins: old appliances, cosmetics, batteries… the list goes on. “Clothes, used cooking oil, and electronic devices that we no longer use can be easily recycled or reused,” Joan told me. 

Barcelona has a network of “punt verds” scattered across the city - some are permanent neighborhood fixtures, like the one I visited, others can be found in the back of large vans or trucks that travel to certain areas on particular days, while other larger ones in the outskirts cater mainly to businesses. Items that cannot be treated by public waste companies, like oil or old phones, for example, are then taken to authorized private businesses, including job placement charities that sort through old clothes.  

But only 40% of municipal waste in the Barcelona area, Joan tells me, is prepared to be reused or recycled, despite incentives like waste tax discounts for people who use “punt verds”. This is below both the EU and Catalan averages, and needs to rise drastically over the next two and half years in order to comply with the EU Waste Framework Directive, which says at least 55% should be prepared for this purpose by 2025.

“Right now, everyone has recycling bins by their house,” Joan tells me, clearly exasperated. “And it’s getting easier and easier to use the punt verd network.” To him, recycling is a matter of common sense: “We should separate waste and be aware of how much of it we leave behind because natural resources are being depleted.”

Local authorities, in charge of street cleaning and waste collection, are only one part of the equation. This brought me to my second stop: Ecoparc 2 in Montcada i Reixac, one of the Barcelona area's four waste treatment plants, where I met with Pascual Calafell from the metropolitan authority on a very windy day in May. 

Located outside the Vallès county town, with Barcelona’s Tibidado telecommunications tower visible far away in the distance, my first impression was that the place is huge - a small city tucked away from our awareness, and yet full of people working day and night to make sure our cities and towns can keep running. My second thought: it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as I was expecting. 

This particular Ecoparc, Pascual tells me when giving me a tour of the site, is where everything in the brown organic bins, yellow plastic recycling bins, and grey trash bins from the northern Barcelona area ends up. 

I’m visibly impressed when he tells me the plant is self-sufficient energy-wise, as it makes biogas out of organic material, and is even able to put electricity back into the grid for public consumption. It also makes compost for the agricultural sector. 

I find the site's intricate production line - de-production line? - of conveyor belts with human and machine-aided waste sorting efforts mesmerizing, where items like glass or cardboard are retrieved from the grey bin waste and recycled. But I’m also a bit disappointed when Pascual tells me that only 10% or so of this recyclable material is recovered. 

And even though, say, a beer can might be able to be fished out of a sea of non-recyclable trash, doing so is costly and inefficient, as is sending waste to a landfill that will have to be treated to make sure it does not pollute the groundwater and soil or produce harmful greenhouse gasses or to an incinerator. 

“The purpose of separate waste collection is to collect items that are valuable” because they can be recycled, Pascual told me. “If they are placed in grey bins, besides being two or three times more expensive to retrieve, they are dirtier too.”

Pascual, like Joan, also noted just how far off the Barcelona area is from meeting the EU targets. When I asked him what he thought the solution was, he let out a long sigh. 

Taking the trash out “shouldn’t be as anonymous” as it is nowadays, he argued, because nobody is held accountable for not recycling things that can be recycled or for putting things in the wrong bin. 

Households sort waste far more efficiently, he said, when there are systems are in place where bins can only be opened with special cards, or even with the much-loathed “porta a porta” door-to-door system that was piloted neighborhoods like Sant Andreu or Sarrià and has long existed in other towns, where only certain kinds of waste can be left outside buildings on certain days. 

At the end of the day, not only is this far more sustainable and better for the environment, but it’s also cheaper for all of us. Is this what we’ll all have to do, sooner or later?