Berd Landfill

by Kirk Wallace

AEN, as discussed previously, has launched its IWMP (Integrated Waste Management Project) in the town of Berd, in Tavush marz.  The project has three separately funded components; education, capacity building and the construction of a landfill.  The landfill is the focus of this blog.

According to various reports there are approximately 430 rural and 45 urban waste dumps located in Armenia.  These are the “reported” dumps.  There are literally hundreds of other dump sites that have sprung up all over Armenia.  These sites include Armenia’s rivers and streams which are strewn with plastic bags, bottles and all other types of garbage.  Until the opening of a landfill in Akhtala, in late September of this year, there were no landfills.  All the waste dumps were simply that; dumps.  This includes Armenia’s largest dump at Nubarashen, just outside of Yerevan, which is the subject of an earlier blog.  So, why is there only one landfill in Armenia?  Good question and one we have attempted to answer.  The easy answers are the lack of money and political will.  These are critical elements, of course, but we feel the answers are also to be found in the lack of creativity in the handling of the waste.  This is where AEN enters the picture.

One of my first tasks, as a member of AEN, was to research the solid waste problem in Armenia and figure out where our organization could contribute.  Our president, Ursula Kazarian, reasoned that no one really was addressing the solid waste issue here and determined that AEN would take on this challenge.  With our IWMP we are doing just that.  Our approach to solid waste management is a holistic one and includes public, civic and municipal education, in addition to improving the capacity to collect the waste, recycle plastics, reuse glass bottles and compost the “wet” (organic) wastes.  This segregation of waste into its component parts will be accomplished in the homes, prior to pick-up.  This is known as source separation and is the critical element in our design.   We hope to remove up to 80-85% of the waste from the waste stream, leaving only 15-20% to be safely deposited.  This is where the landfill component comes in.

I learned quickly that landfills designed to Western standards are incredibly expensive as they contain all the latest high tech equipment such as synthetic liners, leachate pipes, pumps and treatment facilities, methane dispersal units and so forth.  We felt that the cost constructing a landfill with these elements simply did not make economic sense in a village of 3000 people.  Yet, waste still needed to be safely deposited, covered, and placed in a safe location.  So I turned to an approach to development work and engineering known as “appropriate technology”.

Appropriate technology (AT) is a creative approach to development work that attempts to create sustainable solutions to difficult problems using low tech, environmentally friendly and holistic methods.  It is an approach that is gaining popularity for the simple reason that it works, it makes sense, it is community driven and, most importantly, sustainable.  The poster children for appropriate technologies are the universal nut sheller (Full Belly Project) and the pot-in-pot refrigerator (click here for 10 great examples).  Simply brilliant!

What does this have to do with a landfill?  Well I wanted to apply the principles of AT to the construction of our sanitary landfill.  One problem was the lack of examples.  I scoured the Internet and only discovered two examples of environmentally sound low-tech landfills, one in the Pacific Islands and the other a theoretical example for how to construct one in South America.   With the proliferation of solid waste it seemed reasonable that a viable AT solution to waste could be useful both in Armenia and other developing nations.  These examples were inspiring and I determined that it could also be accomplished in Armenia.

This led to the second problem.  People thought the idea was crazy, not feasible, and so on.  The main critics were those who simply did not care to open their minds to a simpler solution.  There is still a bias that Western technology is always best.  If something engineered lacks the “bells and whistles” than it is often perceived, here at least, as somehow less than impressive.  AEN needed someone to believe in the idea, which is exactly what Tim Straight of the Norwegian Consulate, Ben Walmer from LIMN Architects and Joe Schaffer from JFS Engineering did.  Tim helped secure critical funding for the first two components of our IWMP and Ben and Joe are providing the technical expertise to get the landfill built.  AEN only lacks the funding for construction to see this project to its fruition.  We also secured funding from the Trust for Mutual Understanding to fund travel for international experts, which allowed Ben’s visit to Armenia in November.

Ben and Joe are currently designing the landfill, following the philosophical underpinnings of AT.  The main challenge will be leachate containment.  Normally this is achieved with the use of a geosynthetic liner but these are impossibly expensive.  A clay liner will be created and leachates collected as efficiently and safely as possible.  Other challenges exist, including the steep terrain at the site location and the lack of precipitation, electricity and running water.  Above all, the landfill must be simple enough to maintain and so the fewer moving parts the better.  In order to address these issues the landfill may possibly include the use of:

In addition to these infrastructure elements, the site may also include:

As this is a holistic approach it bears repeating that the most important element in this venture is the educational component.  If the community supports the IWMP, it will succeed.  This pilot project is completely unique, as far as I know, and if successful, can serve as a model for other similar projects, both in Armenia and around the world.   Isn’t it great though, that the first of its kind will be built in Armenia?  Stay tuned and please consider making a tax-deductible donation today to support the project.