INTERNATIONAL: Former East Germany Unearths Landfill Problems

German reunification in October 1990 revealed environmental devastation from improper waste disposal. For example, approximately 10,000 of the 11,000 municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal sites peppering the former East German states lacked minimal safeguards such as fencing, access control and record keeping. Only 1,000 were classified as controlled waste sites and 120 met the country's standards.

In 1990, the Federal Minister for Environment stated that Germany's goal was to raise the state of the environment to a uniform level throughout the country by the year 2000. Now, however, it appears that this goal may have been overly optimistic.

Several years later, the five eastern German states are still burdened by the technically deficient disposal facilities pre-dating reunification. Landfills often don't have liners, leachate collection or gas control systems. Other inadequacies include equipment and waste quantity recording. To make matters even worse, waste volumes have risen sharply as consumerism takes hold.

Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin (see map), has imported waste from the metropolis for decades. By the mid 1980s, West Berlin alone generated 1.2 million tonnes of waste each year, excluding construction and demolition debris (C&D) and contaminated soils. To avoid long-distance hauls to West Germany, the city sent its incinerator ash and compacted, containerized MSW to Brandenburg landfills that did not comply with Western standards.

Consequently, extensive landfill remediation plans are now being put into action, said Bernhard Remde of Brandenburg's State Environmental Ministry in a recent interview. Currently, six large-scale landfills, with a remaining life averaging 10 years, receive Berlin's waste. At three of these sites, the cleanup costs are estimated at DM 1.8 billion (U.S. $1.27 billion), which will be defrayed by tipping fees. Old cells are being capped and new cells have liners. At the Schoneiche landfill, shallow waste deposits are excavated and then returned to the cells after modern liners are installed.

Due to the large number of Brandenburg's contaminated sites and its limited funds, decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. Some designs include deep slurry walls to seal off the landfill; landfill mining is being investigated as an alternative.

"Brandenburg's creed," Remde said, "is to do what is necessary and reasonable for long-term ecological protection without going to extremes that our citizens cannot afford." The problem is not one of technical resources, he added, which Germany has in abundance.

In addition, the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is experiencing landfill shortages, according to its 1993 annual report. Some provisional MSW landfills have been retrofitted with composite liners and leachate collection, but as permits expire and capacity is consumed, a crisis situation is arising in some communities. One solution being pursued is to develop regional facilities.

Since January of 1994, the state of Sachsen was down to 62 MSW landfills. Only one in five is expected to remain operational through the year 2000 or longer. As early as this year or next, some cities and counties will no longer be able to rely on their disposal capacity. As a result, plans for expansions and new sitings are under way to boost the state's total landfill volume from approximately 17 to 63 million cubic meters.

In the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, only about 50 of the 1,109 landfills operating in 1990 will remain available for household waste. Some landfills no longer accepting MSW will stay open for C&D waste for a limited time. At the state's operating landfills, protective measures include evaluating environmental impacts, retrofitting and installing groundwater monitoring systems. Because most of the MSW landfills will not last until 2000, the state is siting new ones.

Similarly, Thuringen's supply of landfills has shrunk from 1,100 sites in 1990 to 44, only 20 to 30 of which are expected to be operating at the end of this year. State-of-the-art retrofits, in some cases involving extensive construction work, were undertaken in 1993 at 30 landfills.

On the bright side, the eastern states have two factors working to their advantage to reduce disposal volumes. "Residents," Remde pointed out, "have deeply ingrained habits of collecting recyclables [from the days of the state-run recycling system], and many are true gardeners who can make backyard composting work."