Why orange bags are the best solution for Vilnius

Algirdas Blazgys, Director of Energesman UAB

Residents have been sorting food waste for four months now. In the Vilnius region, they separate it into orange bags, which they then place in mixed waste containers. During this period, numerous ideas and proposals have been put forward on how to improve food waste sorting – composting food waste at special accessible sites for residents, replacing plastic orange bags with paper ones, or using separate underground containers specifically for food waste.

Let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks of these alternatives. Perhaps it will become clear that the current system is a convenient, effective, and environmentally friendly choice?

Composting at home

Composting food waste at home is certainly a good solution. We have examples from other European Union countries that do this. It wouldn’t be an issue in Lithuania if individual houses and cottages predominated in Vilnius and other cities in the region, allowing us to compost food and green waste in our yards with compost bins. Indeed, many residents of individual houses and cottages already do this.

However, we are predominantly an urban area with many apartment buildings, and we don’t have enough space for communal composting sites. Would residents really be pleased if we installed compost bins in already cramped apartment courtyards? And these bins would emit unpleasant odors. Who would maintain them – the residents themselves or the municipalities?

I highly doubt that residents would support such a solution, and such improvements would not be welcomed by tourists or the municipalities themselves.

Paper bags

Another proposed alternative is paper bags. This sounds appealing – they would compost along with the waste and be a sustainable choice.

But what thickness of paper would be required to prevent them from disintegrating from moist peelings or liquid dinner leftovers, causing sorted food waste to end up back in the mixed waste stream? What would be the point of sorting then?

Unfortunately, paper bags are not currently a more sustainable choice than plastic ones. Studies show that the production of one paper bag from non-recycled paper leaves a carbon footprint of 40-100 g of CO2. The carbon footprint of producing a polyethylene bag is 4-5 times smaller, at 10-20 g.

Yes, a paper bag looks nicer, but its production causes more pollution and destroys trees. Should we really destroy natural resources for aesthetically pleasing food waste sorting? I think this is certainly not a priority for our planet.

Separate containers

Finally, many believe that separate containers for food waste are the best solution. After all, Vilnius has already installed some separate underground containers. Why couldn’t we use them and expand the network? This would be the most expensive, least convenient for residents, and environmentally unfriendly choice.

Firstly, separate trucks would be needed to service separate containers. Once residents are accustomed to sorting food waste, approximately 70,000 tonnes of biodegradable waste will be generated annually in the Vilnius region. Only about a third, or 20-30,000 tonnes, will be purely kitchen waste, which residents would dispose of in the containers.

One waste collection truck, which can carry about one tonne of such waste, emits 9.5 kg of CO2. To transport all the biodegradable waste, approximately 665,000 kg of CO2 would be emitted annually. Even if the trucks were electric, they wouldn’t improve the situation in another aspect – they would regularly drive through the city, and Vilnius already suffers from significant traffic congestion.

Each additional vehicle means even more traffic jams and more time spent by residents in traffic, as well as increased air pollution. I’m sure no resident or politician responsible for implementing the EU Green Deal wants this.

Moreover, it wouldn’t be possible to install additional containers for food sorting everywhere due to space constraints, for example, in the old town. This would also be the most expensive solution, requiring millions in investments for container installation, more trucks, and more staff for their maintenance. And, of course, residents would ultimately have to pay for this – collection would cost an additional €12 million per year, which is about €15 per resident.

Residents running with buckets

The biggest downside of this sorting model is the inconvenience to residents. Imagine having to dispose of waste in such a container without any bag. What would be the point of sorting in a separate container if we still use bags?

This would mean residents would have to remember the Soviet times when we carried waste in a bucket and emptied it into the waste truck without any bags – because they simply didn’t exist back then. Would this really be convenient? Where would residents wash the waste-stained bucket – in their shower? I doubt many would like that.

The most likely result would be that this would discourage residents from sorting food waste. Such waste disposal is completely incompatible with the modern lifestyle, where we usually take out the rubbish on the way somewhere – before going to work, walking the dog, or going to the store. How many of us would want to return to the flat to put away the bucket, especially a dirty one?

I am sure that in this case, only the most enthusiastic would sort food waste, and most of it would end up in the mixed waste stream again, as it did before the introduction of orange bags.

Orange bags

There have been concerns about plastic bags ending up in landfills or being incinerated. It’s important to emphasize that sorting the bags and returning them for recycling is not difficult and is being done.

Used and sorted orange bags are fully recyclable, and there are several technological solutions for this. Recently, we conducted real tests with our orange bags filled with up to 4.5 kg of residents’ waste. We achieved excellent results – automated equipment correctly sorted 100% of the bags with food waste. This means not a single orange bag will end up in a landfill or among incinerated waste.

Finally, questions arise about the durability of orange bags. On average, 2% of bags burst during transport, and this number never exceeds 10%. The bags withstand the journey to the waste sorting plant when only food waste is placed in them. If residents throw a glass oil bottle into the orange bag, thinking it’s food waste because the bottle is smeared with oil and contained food, then yes – there’s a high chance the glass will break during transport, and the bag will burst. So, it’s all in our hands.

Currently, the orange bag system operating in the Vilnius region is designed for people, for their convenience, but also with rational thinking on how to achieve results effectively without increasing the negative impact on the environment. It is said that the devil is in the details, and there are indeed many in this puzzle. Therefore, I invite you to delve into them to manage waste responsibly and make the best decisions.