RDF Burned in Bulgaria May Contain Toxic Waste Unloaded bags with RDF in Varna Sea Port. 2nd of May, 2019 Credit: Iliyan Iliev

RDF Burned in Bulgaria May Contain Toxic Waste

Lose regulations and insufficient control turn municipal waste inceneration into an ecological and health risk for Bulgarian cities, activists warn. Waste imports from countries, such as Italy, raise greater concerns about the public’s health and safety, as Italian anti-mafia activists claim that waste processing in their country has close ties with organised crime and often mixes toxic waste into domestic waste.

Due to EU and national limitations thermal power plants are increasingly mixing coal with the so called refuse-derived fuel (RDF) – a mixture of domestic or industrial solid waste. According to Meglena Antonova of Greenpeace Bulgaria, there are good business reasons for such a shift: RDF is much cheaper to obtain (in fact some municipalities are willing to pay for disposing of their waste) and generally encouraged as a cleaner fuel. A portion of it is imported from Italy and the United Kingdom.

Puzzled by waste inceneration: Iliyan Iliev, a member of the managing council of the Public Centre for the Environment and Sustainable Development in the coastal city of Varna. Photo courtesy of Iliyan Iliev

liyan Iliev commutes by train from his home town of Kaspichan to Varna almost every day. Before arriving to Varna, the train goes through the vast industrial sea-port zone, where on the 4th of May, any traveller looking out the window could observe big white bags being unloaded from a transport ship. The same could be seen on the 2nd of May, the 24th of April, January 2019, December 2018 and many other dates throughout the past few years. Following these ships on the marine traffic website, Iliev discovered that the waste arriving to Bulgaria in April and May of 2019 was loaded in UK ports.


Thir cargo is RDF – supposedly non-hazardous solid waste treated and prepared for use as a fuel in power plants and cement kilns.

Waste but not waste

But RDF is a tricky thing, according to Iliev who is a member of the managing council of the Public Centre for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Varna. “RDF is a fanciful term, which was created to excuse the import and export of waste. According to the EU legislation, member states have no right to export their waste to other countries. But if it is RDF, then it can move through borders freely,” he explained.

RDF is mechanically processed. It can then be used in incinerators and cement kilns as an additional or substitute fuel to coal or natural gas. In the European Waste List, RDF has a separate code –19 12 10– and can be transported across borders both within the EU and outside. Another similar product is SRF (solid recovered fuels) with the code 19 12 12, which is produced from pre-sorted municipal or commercial waste and has a higher quality than RDF.

Bulgarian law on waste management and  transportation allows for the import of waste for burning with the intent to produce energy in an amount not exceeding 50% of existing incinerator installations. In the region of Varna there is one licensed incinerator – a cement kiln owned by Devnya Cement, located 20 km away from the city.

Nowadays RDF is a widespread waste product throughout the EU member states and is the most common waste product shipped across EU borders. According to Eurostat, the total volume of RDF shipped from EU member states in 2016 was 4.8 mln tonnes. 

One of the biggest exporters of RDF in the EU is the UK.  The country exported 2.9 mln tonnes of RDF and SRF in 2018 and 3.2 mln tonnes in 2017. Most of it went to the Netherlands (1.3 and 1.5 mln tonnes in 2018 and 2017 respectively), Sweden (0.54 mln tonnes in 2018) and Germany (0.49 mln tonnes in 2018). The rest went to other EU countries, including Bulgaria, in much smaller quantities.

According to a national report by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Environment and Waters to the Basel convention in 2017, the country imported 69,683 tonnes of waste for incineration in a form of RDF, SRF, pretreated mixed waste and mixed contaminated plastics. It included 18,732 metric tons of RDF and 15,023 metric tons of SRF from the UK; 27,868 metric tons of RDF and 3,036 metric tons of pretreated mixed waste from Italy; and 5024 metric tons of contaminated plastics from Germany.

Hidden emissions

Although waste incinerators are widely spread throughout Western European countries, it does not mean that this technology has been proven safe for public health and the environment. Recent scandals surrounding hidden toxic emissions in the Netherlands and the UK have opened up discussions on the gradual withdrawal from the burning of waste and switch to recycling.

In November 2018, a group dedicated to the  elimination of waste in our society, ZeroWasteEurope, issued a report on hidden emissions from the newest incinerator in the Netherlands. Long-term tests revealed emissions of dioxin, furan and persistent organic pollutants far beyond the limits established by current EU rules.

Similar findings were discovered in the UK in 2018, where incinerators were not obliged to measure NOx and particulate matters because of a gap in the legislation that led to an underestimation of potential health threats and environmental pollution resulting from waste-to-energy plants.

The fact that Bulgaria imports waste from other countries to burn on its own territory has raised significant concerns by environmentalists–and not just because of the smell. Iliev shares his concern that RDF may include some toxic substances, as it comes from municipal and commercial waste, both of which are not separated into hazardous and non-hazardous material. There is no quality control upon arrival of the product, which means that we in fact do not know the composition of the imported waste. He is also concerned about the lack of emissions control in Bulgaria: “Incinerator facilities can freely cut their expenses for gas filters because there is no one here to control them. Also, no one speaks about waste ashes. Cement producers will tell you that the ash is part of their end product–cement. This means that cement can contain toxic elements, but nowadays it is an officially accepted practice. We need more research on that.”.

Waste made in Italy

Antonio Pergolizzi, coordinator of the environmental crimes programme in Legambiente, tells about illegal waste management in Italy during the seminar for environmental activists and journalists in St.Petersburg. February 2019. Photo: Vadim Kantor

Bulgaria has been a long-time destination for Italian waste. According to ISPRA, 19% of exported Italian RDF went to Bulgaria in 2013. In 2016, the issue of imported waste from Italy hit the news and raised public alarm due to the strong smell that emanated from the port in Varna while unloading the waste. As it was discovered by Bulgarian media, waste for incineration in cement kilns was coming from different Italian regions, including Palermo, Napoli and Sicily as well as cities in Northern Italy.

The possibility of toxic substances in RDF from Italy is a source of concern. The Italian environmental organisation Legambiente has been investigating rogue waste management practices for decades. Findings show that non-hazardous waste can contain toxic substances due to lack of control, said Antonio Pergolizzi, coordinator of the environmental crimes programme in Legambiente. “At the beginning of the waste chain, there is no real control. The waste operator just needs to fill in a Fir doc, which is a form of self-certification of the type of waste it processes. Checks may–not must –come later, in the form of routine inspections or judicial investigations. It’s obvious that what the law enforcement reveals it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he told journalists at a EU-Russia Civil Society sponsored workshop in St.Petersburg in February 2019.

Waste producers can falsify waste codes to reduce disposal costs. Transportation companies can falsify codes to benefit from the cost differential between legal and illegal disposal methods. Treatment and recycling companies can also manipulate documents, such as switching the invoice (the so-called “giro bolla”) aimed at reducing the costs of disposal or to pretend that waste was treated somewhere it wasn’t. In particular, these companies use their facilities to disguise fake treatment operations or to practice tax fraud.

Illegaly dumped toxic waste excavated by Italian police at Alatari. Photo courtesy of Pergolisi/Legambiente

As a result, toxic substances, which should be transported to a special landfill for hazardous waste, can easily be “transformed” into harmless urban waste, explains Pergolizi. It then goes to a landfill for municipal waste or to an incinerator or, in the worst case, it can be thrown into an illegal landfill or recovered as compost to be used in farmland.

From January 2017 to May 2018, Italian law enforcement officers conducted 54 investigations of organised illegal traffic of waste and found that more than 4.5 million tonnes of poisonous substances had not been properly declared as hazardous waste.

The most well-known case of illegal toxic waste burning and dumping happened in Campania, in the south of Italy. For more than 20 years, since the end of the 1980s, the Camorra criminal organisation systematically mistreated toxic waste. The region is now experiencing an increase in the number of deaths caused by cancer and other diseases that exceeds the Italian national average. The rise in cancer-related mortality is thought to be mainly caused by pollution from illegal waste disposal.

To prove that the illegal waste business is highly profitable for the mafia, Pergolizi cites Italian Finance Police, who discovered that while Italian companies pay about €60,000 to legally dispose a container with 15,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, the same amount can be illegally disposed for only €5,000 in Eastern Europe or Asia. 

Poor control

There is no regular control of imported RDF in Bulgaria. And any checks that do occur might only be performed after concrete signals of a problem arise. This means that in a situation where hazardous waste is easily manipulated, people living next to burning waste facilities cannot be sure of the quality of air they breathe.

The office for regional inspection of the environment in Varna wrote in their official answer to the inquiry that on the 6th of November, 2017, and on the 24th of January, 2018, samples of RDF were taken from the private seaport of Odesos after concern was expressed by the public and media. According to the inspection, no abnormal substances were found in the samples.

The inspected RDF was imported from Italy for the company Geocycle Bulgaria, a branch of the global waste management company headquartered in Switzerland. In Bulgaria, the company has one installation for burning waste–the cement kiln in the village of Beli Izvor, located in the Vratsa region of northwest Bulgaria. According to information on its website, more than 90,000 tonnes of waste were processed in the Beli Izvor cement kiln in 2017.

Devnya Cement, located near Varna and also involved in waste burning, has not answered an enquiry about its quality control of imported RDF and the possibility of toxic materials in its emissions, ashes and cement at the time of publishing this article. But according to information from the office for regional inspection of the environment in Varna, Devnya Cement has appliances for continuous and periodical emission control installed on its kiln No. 7, which is the only kiln with permission to burn waste. Data from the continuous control system is gathered every half an hour and includes measurements of particle matters, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, total organic carbon and ammonia. So far there have been no measures exceeding normal readings. 

As the recent findings of hidden emissions from waste incinerators have shown, waste burning cannot be a sustainable long-term solution for the problem of waste. Moreover, transborder shipments of waste for burning is not fair, considers Iliyan: “States have to deal with their own waste. If they decide to burn, they can do it. But it should be on the spot. Then, as a tourist, you will know that in Rome, besides history and pizza, you will also get some harmful pollutants. Otherwise it is very nice. Let’s go for a vacation to sunny Italy – wine, romance, and Mamma Mia! And then burn the waste in Bulgaria.”

The original article “Сжигаемое в Болгарии RDF-топливо может содержать опасные отходы” was published on bellona.ru on 28.06.2019. Translated from Russian for publication on bluelink.info.

The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU and implemented by BlueLink and the Environmental Rights Centre BELLONA (www.bellona.ru) in 2018-2019. The project was supported by the EU– Russia Civil Society Forum (www.eu-russia-csf.org) and its donors. The content of the article is the responsibility of its author and  may not reflect the donors’ point of view.

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