SOBRADO, Portugal (Reuters) - Conceicao Gaspar looks out from her house on a lush green landscape but the Portuguese pensioner cannot enjoy the view because she knows the trees conceal an open-air landfill where large amounts of trash from all over Europe are dumped.
“It’s impossible to live here now,” said the visibly upset 69-year old, who has lived all her life in the small hill village of Sobrado in northern Portugal, but is increasingly struggling with the stench drifting over from the landfill.
“When it smells, I’m forced to shut doors because if I don’t, it’s impossible to sleep at night,” she said.
The landfill receives trash from across Portugal but is also one of 11 private sites in the country allowed to handle foreign trash, environment agency APA said.
And the amounts are increasing as European countries have had to look for other ways to dispose of their rubbish after China introduced strict limits two years ago on the amount of foreign waste it will import.
Some 330,000 tonnes of “amber list” trash, which includes waste containing hazardous substances and needs prior approval, arrived in Portugal from abroad in 2018, a 53% increase from the year before, APA said.
Around a third of this trash ended up in landfills, and locals in Sobrado say the situation is getting worse.
“The country has to think whether it wants this type of business, whether it wants to be seen as Europe’s rubbish dump,” Jose Ribeiro, mayor of Valongo, where Sobrado is located, told Reuters.
In a letter sent to the environment ministry last month, Ribeiro said he believes Portugal became an attractive destination for trash due to its low waste management fee for landfills, which was set at 9.90 euros per tonne in 2019, compared to a European average of 80 euros.
At the Sobrado landfill - which is authorized to receive over 400 types of waste, including construction products containing asbestos, according to the website of Recivalongo, the company that runs it - trucks with shipping containers can be spotted dumping rubbish into a massive hole.
Like other villagers, Gaspar says she is scared the landfill is taking a toll on her health.
The municipality said last year the landfill could lead to a proliferation of insects, seagulls and rodents, and a potential spread of infectious diseases, though the regional health authority told Reuters it saw no threat to public health.
Recivalongo did not respond to numerous emailed and telephone requests from Reuters for comment, but on its website the Portuguese company says: “The landfill is designed so that environmental impacts are drastically reduced, fully complying with all the most stringent standards”.
Residents are not convinced. Last year, they launched an environmental group ‘Jornada Principal’, which organizes protests and petitions, and it plans to file a lawsuit against Portugal’s environment ministry.
“We felt hurt when our quality of life was taken away from us, the right to breathe clean air,” said Marisol Marques, a group member. “We want the landfill to shut down.”
This all comes as a directive from Brussels requires all European Union member states to reduce landfilling by 2035 to a maximum of 10% of the total waste produced by a municipality.
Faced with such pressure, the Portuguese government ordered APA this month to make it harder for waste shipments to be allowed into Portugal.
But those living next to landfills, including 68-year-old Sobrado resident Joaquim Nelson, want further action.
Standing by his house, where he says the stench from the landfill often forces him to keep his windows shut, he said he wants the government “to take concrete and serious measures, to give us back the air we used to breathe”.
One particular point of grievance in Sobrado is the amount of trash coming from the Campania region of southern Italy, where organized crime groups illegally dumped and burned toxic waste for decades.
Forced by an EU court to get to grips with its waste problem, Campania began exporting some of its trash in 2015, including to Portugal. Some 15,000 tonnes of Campania’s waste came to Sobrado alone last year, according to a letter sent by APA to the municipality.
“The fear is that in a few years we won’t have a solution for our own waste problem because we filled our landfills with trash from abroad,” said Carmen Lima from Quercus, an environmental group.
Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Gareth Jones