Luis Palomino,  Secretary-General of ASEGRE.

“Proper waste treatment creates jobs”

ASEGRE, the Association of Waste and Special Resource Management Companies, is one of the most important players in Spain’s industrial waste management ecosystem. Twenty-five years after its creation, its partners -SERTEGO included- manage more than 70% of hazardous and non-hazardous industrial waste produced in Spain. We sat down to talk with Luis Palomino, the Director of the Association for more than ten years, and one of the leading experts in environmental law applied to industrial waste management. A militant convinced of sustainability, he wishes that Spaniards were more environmentally aware, and people were more interested in knowing what happens to our industry’s waste.

June 2017 web copy

Luis Palomino, Secretario general de ASEGRE.
Luis Palomino, Secretary-General of ASEGRE.
What is ASEGRE’s main purpose?

Our mission is to defend the interests of the Industrial Waste Treatment sector, both in terms of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Naturally, the sector is highly regulated and controlled, where only companies and facilities with very specific authorisations and the ability to apply certain very specific management and treatment techniques can operate. The agents’ goal is to guarantee safe waste treatment where there are no negative impacts on human health or environmental quality. Once this is guaranteed, the priority is to extract the greatest amount of resources from this waste. In the end, what ASEGRE does is defend this legal framework so that this activity, which is so important from a social and environmental perspective, can be carried out under the best possible conditions.

We have changed so much in a quarter century.

That’s right, ASEGRE turns 25 in 2017. We came to be shortly after the hazardous waste law came into effect, and today we represent more than 70% of Spain’s treatment capacity. This volume makes us a valuable liaison with public administrations. Among other things, at ASEGRE we advise public authorities on the application of ever-changing environmental law.

Meaning that you act as an intermediary between companies and the administration?

Yes, from the municipal and regional area, all the way up to the national and European level. In Spain, the legal framework is complicated by the varying regional laws. There is a distortion: you have the Spanish market with 17 regulators, 17 sets of criteria, 17 control mechanisms… It is fundamental that application criteria is standardised, and you can see that in things as important as waste traceability. Throughout the chain of traceability, there are different phases of waste collection, storing, stockpiling, and transporting until it reaches its final agent. Waste can be collected in one autonomous community, stockpiled in another, and treated in another. We have to be able to connect all of the autonomous communities, and we are working hard to achieve it.

Another example of a lack of standardisation are the requirements for facility authorisation. Each facility is authorised to treat a different type of waste with a certain technique. Used oil, a battery, a solvent, a refrigerator, a television… These are all types of waste that require specific treatment techniques. It is extremely important that these techniques, although they are differentiated by type of waste, are the same everywhere.

With the economic crisis, we have gone back 20 or 30 years in environmental awareness, to a time when what mattered was to produce at all costs.

Lastly, we have the matter of deposits. Financial guarantees that are imposed on waste agents vary wildly by autonomous region. We have to standardise this. The purpose of these financial guarantees should be for some money to be left over to be able to manage hazardous waste that remains following some sort of issue that forces the agent to cease activities.

These three things (traceability, authorisations, and deposits) are not yet unified. There is also a problem with taxation being different. That is why I said that we have one market but 17 regulators and 17 sets of criteria. This affects the market’s operations and favors poor practices.

How are we doing in relation to our European neighbours?

What is lacking in Spain is an overall heightened environmental awareness: society in general and producers. We work in an extremely sensitive sector with little media coverage unless something catastrophic happens. ASEGRE’s roll also involves denouncing poor practices. Right now, we are involved in various lawsuits. We have the ability to know what is going on, and we can denounce it when needed: the Autonomous Communities, the Military Police, the Prosecutor’s Office… It is important work that we have been doing for more than 5 years.

Behind the misconduct, is there always an economic motivator?

Yes, and that distorts the market. Dubious operators pop up and offer much cheaper ways of managing waste that do not guarantee safe conditions.

How do you think the sector has changed in the last 10 years?

I think this sector’s best moment was in 2008. There was large-scale hazardous waste production because of increased economic and industrial activity. Everything came crashing down in 2009. Between 2009 and 2010, activity dropped by 40% as a result of the economic crisis. Values changed in Spain. Up until that time, environmental awareness held a certain importance, but the economic crisis meant that this was no longer a priority for many Spaniards. At ASEGRE, we feel that the economic crisis made us go back 20 or 30 years as far as environmental awareness is concerned, to a time when producing at any cost was all that mattered. And producing cheaply. Producing cheaply means that you no longer manage your waste, you throw it into a lot. Today that has become a soil contamination problem that is proving difficult to resolve. Have no doubt, it is much cheaper to manage our industrial waste than it is to dump it into the environment. But right now, people are only looking at the short-term.

Economic activity can’t come before health and sustainability.

Do you have an example?

For example, the famous Flix reservoir (Tarragona) on the Ebro river, where industrial activity has developed over the course of the 20th century. There was a build-up of mud with a hazardous composition that was sent directly to the river. Today some 120-140 million Euro have been invested in the clean-up.

That sounds like Erin Brockovich.

I love that film because it explains things well, and I can give you examples of how reality surpasses fiction. Murcia, about 4 or 5 years ago. A hazardous waste agent in a transfer centre. At these centres, waste in has to be the same as waste out because it doesn’t treat waste, it just groups it. Well, in this case, waste was coming in, but it wasn’t going out. What this agent was doing was pumping it into a well. The Safety Confederation realized that there were strange levels in the analysis of the wells in the area. They investigated until they realised that this man was pumping in hazardous water.

What are the sector’s forecasts for this year?

We work in function of how the industrial sector and the economy in general is doing. When industrial activity is growing like it is now, it is a sign of economic growth. What our sector does is it reduces the environmental impact of all this activity to a minimum. For development to be sustainable, economic activity must evolve without affecting health or the environment.

The circular economy package that the European Commission is developing now is important, it includes modifications to various directives: directives on waste, electronic waste, batteries, packaging, containers, and dump sites.

How is hazardous waste eliminated?

Depending on the characteristics of the waste, it must be incinerated or disposed of at a dump site. These are the two elimination operations. Right now, we calculate that something on the order of 40% of hazardous waste is being recovered. Recovering means taking advantage of the resources contained in waste and the ability to substitute materials or products for certain purposes. For plastics, this includes recycling, or if these plastics are not of sufficient quality to be recycled, then they are used as a source of energy.

What is ASEGRE’s position on technological waste?

ASEGRE represents the interests of Spain’s leading companies that are specifically dedicated to treating waste from electronics and electric devices. On one hand, this waste has a significant possibility of polluting the environment if not properly managed. On the other hand, it contains materials that are recyclable and recoverable. For this reason, ASEGRE’s position is to promote the rigorous application of the law in order to treat this waste with the best techniques available.

Every tonne of waste that is recycled or recovered is a tonne that does not have to be extracted from nature.

Everyone is talking about the Circular Economy now.

ASEGRE has spent years working with this concept. There are some ambitious EU outlooks for job creation derived from increasing reuse, recycling, and recovery. For these outlooks to be fulfilled, we have to strengthen the framework of control, management, and inspection so that everyone is operating under the same conditions. Every tonne of waste that is recycled or recovered is a tonne that does not have to be extracted from nature. A tonne of recycled plastic means that a great deal of oil does not need to be extracted, transported, and refined. A tonne of recycled aluminium avoids an enormous amount of greenhouse effect gas emissions.

What do you think about the international climate change agreements that are proposing a reduction in emissions caused by industrial activity? In some way, that presents a limitation…

The EU has been saying that since 2004. I think its correct, but every country needs to do it: China, the US… Because the evidence of climate change couldn’t be more clear, and Spain is one of the countries that is most affected.

You would like…

I would like Spanish society to have greater environmental awareness.