the tree that hides the forest from poor waste management

The great environmental crisis currently raging in Sfax, secondary to the accumulation of waste in the city center, is far from the consequence of a recent problem, but of a structural and deep defect linked to the general issue about waste management in our country.

And let’s be clear, what happened in Sfax, which relates more or less to the events in Djerba in 2012, is likely to happen again in any other Tunisian city, today or tomorrow.

However, at the risk of disappointing our dear readers, in this article there will be no designation of a perpetrator who alone can wear the hat for this disaster (not for fear of the consequences of the famous Law Decree 54 and its article 24, which promises to guillotine tongues, but because the affair is complex and the distribution of responsibilities multiple and intricate) nor the prescription of a miracle cure that could release the situation with the snap of a finger.

But after analyzing the ins and outs that led to this disaster, we will try to draw the main lines that can lead to a way out of the crisis in the short term, and above all the plans to be adopted so that our cities never again in the future suffer from such environmental injustices.

In order to understand the causes that led to this crisis, it is important that public opinion, with all its components, understand our waste management system. And for the sake of clarity, we will limit ourselves here to talking about household waste and similar waste (DMA), that which concerns our fellow citizens in the most direct way.

According to a strategy whose use began in the 2000s, household waste is managed in a chain described as linear, which includes several stakeholders, from the producer (households themselves) to the final manager of landfills described as “controlled” , in this case the national waste management authority (ANGED) under the auspices of the Ministry of the Environment. The primary collection of this waste is handled by the municipalities, while the rest of the chain (management of transfer centers and/or landfills) falls under ANGED’s jurisdiction.

Without going into the details that describe all the links in this chain, the basic element is to remember the final fate of this waste that we produce. In these controlled landfills (there are a dozen of them throughout the national territory) the technique used is burial. This technique is known to have two major disadvantages: first, the saturation of the places where it is used, which requires them to be closed after a few years. Second, the release of toxic gases, which come from the decomposition of waste, which consists mainly of organic matter, destroys the water table and pollutes the surrounding air.

It goes without saying that the limitations and harmful disadvantages of this disposal method have pushed the inhabitants of the areas bordering these landfills (proximity aggravated by the growing and often anarchic urbanization of recent decades) to demand their closure (the landfill of Guellala in Djerba, Aguereb) landfill in Sfax, Borj Chekir landfill in Tunis).

And however legitimate these claims are, the closure of said landfills without a sustainable alternative can only lead to even more damaging disasters for the environment. The authorities (local, regional or national) often, under pressure from the inhabitants, have to choose quick but unsuitable solutions, such as moving the waste to wild dumps in the open. This is what led to what the city of Sfax is currently experiencing and is at risk of happening everywhere else.

What are the solutions to avoid this type of environmental and health disaster? And above all, are these solutions sustainable?

We do not want to invent anything new by saying that the linear method of waste management described above, and whose limits and negative consequences for the environment have been noted, is in contrast to the so-called integrated method, whose ultimate goal and minimizing the amount of waste determined for deposit. This method involves a drastic change in all links in the chain, such as reduction of waste production, source sorting at the resident (we will only talk about DMA), recycling and the concept of circular economy as well as the installation. of waste recycling units (which mainly produce energy) to replace conventional landfills.

Developed countries began using this integrated management approach more than half a century ago with varying degrees of success. In this way, Europe has set itself the goal of achieving the “Zero waste” concept by 2030.

In Tunisia, and as mentioned above, the establishment of controlled landfills as well as transfer centers that replaced the old wild dumps began in the early 2000s. But it seems clear that this method has reached its limits, turning these landfills into veritable time bombs that threaten the environment and the health of our fellow citizens.

In this connection, is it useful to remember that the recommendations for the transition to integrated waste management do not originate today. They even appear in a manual published in 2005 by the Ministry of the Environment! Since then, several reports, manuals or recommendations of different commissions with the participation of different actors (associations, NGOs, National Federation of Tunisian Cities, Ministry of Environment, etc.) have issued the same conclusions, namely the abandonment of the linear method of waste management to benefit of the integrated approach (I have witnessed this as a member of the National Commission on Waste Management, which has been meeting regularly since 2018).

There are many reasons to slow down this transition process.

First of all, it should be noted that integrated management of waste (and especially of AMD) involves a more complex process, especially involving support from the producer (reduction, sorting at source), establishment of a more expensive collection circuit, installation of sorting centers and/or expensive recycling units . This also implies that there is an appropriate legal framework (specific and targeted taxation, public-private partnership, energy production and utilization by private companies, etc.). A framework which is currently far from being developed. Added to this is the land issue and the citizens’ acceptance of the establishment of recycling units replacing the old landfills (note here, for example, that after the closure of the Guellala landfill in Djerba, a recovery project financed by the private sector was ready for an efficient and rapid start but could not see the light of day due to political disputes!).

In this context, we also cannot ignore the general unstable political climate that Tunisia has experienced since 2011, which makes any decision-making process difficult, slow, even dangerous, as the trust contract between rulers and ruled is fragile.

To return to what is happening in Sfax, which, we will not stop reminding, risks having a snowball effect to reach any other city, the current urgency is to stop the damage by transporting the waste away from urban residential areas. But where ? And in what form?

In my opinion, shifting the problem by dumping the waste in uncontrolled open dumps will only reproduce the same disaster before long. Should we then reopen the controlled landfill in Aguereb to extend its operation (say for a year), the time when a more sustainable solution can see the light of day? Incongruous as it is, I think this is the most rational option. It is then up to the authorities (local and national) to carry out a great deal of dialogue and education to convince the inhabitants of the benefits of such an option.

But in the medium and long term, we have no choice but to change the paradigm and choose a sustainable method of managing our waste. A national plan with a precise timetable for replacing current landfills with recovery units must be urgently developed. It is a colossal task that must solve complex legal, land, economic and environmental equations. But it must be done!

Upstream of the extraction units, and as mentioned above, all links in the chain from production, collection, transport must undergo fundamental transformations with contributions from the various stakeholders: citizens, civil society, private companies, territorial local communities (municipalities, regions), institutions and supervisory authorities ( Anged, ANPE, Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Energy, etc.).

Finally, I insist on the need for a large-scale national communication and awareness campaign aimed at placing the producer of the waste (in this case households for AMDs) at the heart of the process. Because it must always be remembered: The cleanest waste is the one we don’t produce!

Kai Nigrou

Municipal board member – La Marsa municipality

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