María Esther Solabarrieta: “The Integral Waste Management Plan in Bizkaia was pioneering and original”

María Esther Solabarrieta Aznar was born in Caracas in the exile of her family after the Spanish civil war. Her paternal grandfather was Mayor of Ondarroa at the time of the Republic and her maternal grandfather was First Counsellor of Industry in the Basque Government.

She has a degree in Biology. She was Deputy for the Environment and Territorial Action of the Provincial Council of Bizkaia between 1995 and 2003. She has also been Director of Water (1991-1995) and Head of the Environmental Training Service (2003-2012) of the Basque Government. Between 2007 and 2011 she participated in the Management Commission of the Ondarroa Town Council in charge of the Urbanism and Environment Area, and finished her professional career as Head of the Western Cantabrian Basins Office of the Basque Water Agency from 2012 to 2018, when she retired.

She is married and has two children. Since her retirement she has been helping the Venezuelan exile in the Basque Country.

 What has been your participation in the development of waste management infrastructures in Bizkaia?

The design, elaboration, debate and incorporation of the contributions of the different political and social groups and the 33,000 Biscayan families that took part in the information and citizen participation programme, which culminated in the approval of the Integral Plan for the Management of Solid Urban Waste in Biscay 1997-2001. It was a pioneering and unprecedented work.

This Plan provided valid, viable and contrasted solutions to the serious social, economic and environmental problem we had with waste in Biscay. It also determined the investments that Bizkaia needed to approve in its general budgets to solve the waste problem.

And above all in the monographic Plenary of the Parliament of Biscay of May 26, 1997, date in which the Plan was approved by 83% of the members of the Chamber, I summarized it as: “This is a novel Plan, rigorous, meticulous, prudent, flexible, realistic and fruit of the democratic discussion”. We worked hard on it.

Subsequently, in 2002 I presented the Biscay Urban Waste Management Plan 2002-2007 for analysis and reflection, establishing the action plans and commitments of the affected stakeholders: institutions, companies and citizens.  My mandate ended before the Plan was approved.

How were we in waste management when you started working on the subject?

In 2014 Biscay had generated 411,000 tonnes of waste per year and these had been treated as follows:

– 94% landfilled (Gordexola, Artigas, Jata, Amoroto and Igorre).

– 3.2% incinerated (Aulesti, Bermeo and Arrasate).

– 2.8% recycled (glass, paper and batteries).

This is what the situation was, but a serious plan for environmental awareness and a modern and European waste management system was lacking.

How satisfied are you with your work? Did you have any frustration with something you planned or tried to do but then failed to finish?

Without any doubt the main contribution was to have an Integral Management Plan to solve the problem of municipal waste in Biscay. A plan that would integrate, so that everyone wouldn’t walk on their own.

The degree of satisfaction, I would rate it as high. When I finished my mandate in 2003,  I could see that every infrastruture we had approved was either underway, as in the case of the Zabalgarbi Waste-to-Energy plant in the testing phase, or had been completed and were in operation, which showed that the Plan had been designed with its feet on the ground.

Frustration is not exactly how I feel.

When I disappeared from the scene, I felt a strong blow that with me also disappeared the pet Garbi, who was a nice dog to raise awareness in the child population.  It had been created to do a work of awareness and sensitization very close. We got it right with Jon, the chosen person. It was a great value that Plan was offering and was discarded as waste is discarded.  I don’t know what the reasons were for this.

Another topic that I remember as unpleasant was the behaviour of the Bizkaia Bizirik collective, which not only did not listen but also constantly delighted me with slogans such as ” How she lies the Deputy for the Environment”; “Incinerator, one dead every hour”. In the public acts that I attended because it corresponded to my position, I had to be with eight eyes observing that nothing happened to my children, still young, and that they did not understand those choruses of constant voices. I cannot forget that ETA existed and that my husband was assigned an escort.  It was not easy to withstand that constant pressure.

Have you noticed an evolution in society’s awareness of recycling and waste treatment?

During the years 1995-2003 I can tell you that the evolution was spectacular.

In just 8 years we went from 2.8% to 25% recycling. This was logically achieved thanks to the implementation of the necessary infrastructures, as well as the communication plan that was approved and for which I had the invaluable help of Garbi.

I am a devotee of recycling so I observe in great detail the behavior of citizens towards it. I am convinced that we still have a wide margin for growth and perhaps with a reminder from time to time we could go much further.  Let us not forget that we receive a daily shower of information and our brain is selective so we must insist.

What do you think is missing, or what steps need to be taken in the short term, so that Biscay can continue to be in the international vanguard?

I suppose that work is being done on the 3rd Integral Plan for Waste Management in Biscay and that it will be including the Circular Economy, just as I had to focus on the use of material resources and the energy contained in the waste established in 1992 in the Rio de Janeiro Declaration on Environment and Development.

What do you expect from a World Congress such as ISWA2019 that will be held in Bilbao next October?

That it is really practical and that its conclusions are published in a very simple and accessible way to the population, in a document that could be titled “Euskadi and its guide of good practices in the matter of municipal solid waste”.  I wish you every success.

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