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Laughing gas canisters hamper Brussels waste disposal work

09:19 02/02/2023

Discarded canisters of laughing gas – which people are increasingly using to get high – are causing damage to rubbish incinerators in Brussels.

The empty containers of nitrous oxide are often just abandoned on the streets of the capital, where street sweepers collect them.

In just the first three weeks of January, street sweepers collected nearly two tonnes of such canisters, De Standaard reports, of varying sizes.

These have resulted in explosions when the canisters end up in rubbish incinerators.

“Since October last year, we have seen a clear increase,” spokeswoman for waste collector Bruxelles Propreté told De Standaard.

It has seen a clear link between the large quantity of nitrous oxide cartridges and increased drug use.

While nitrous oxide is used, among other things, as a dental anaesthetic and in the food industry to make whipped cream, it is becoming increasingly popular among young people as a drug.

They inhale the gas, which then induces a sense of intoxication.

“A large proportion of canisters are found near clubs and bars,” Pilotto said.

Some of these are 500-gram tubes, which end up in the residual waste and have already caused the three incinerators in Brussels to grind to a halt several times.

When these cylinders aren’t completely empty, explosions occur in the furnaces, causing major damage. Repairs after such an event takes at least 48 hours each time.

A number of measures have already been introduced to limit the damage, such as targeted checks on trucks bringing in the waste, but Bruxelles Propreté is also looking for structural solutions to tackle the problem in the long term.

Schaerbeek's deputy director of the cleanliness department, Geert Pierre, who has been with the Brussels municipality for 20 years, calls the increase in nitrous oxide capsules in the rubbish “unprecedented”.

“In previous years, we came across the occasional small container, but now we are talking about at least 1,000 in the past three months, including mainly larger nitrous oxide capsules,” Pierre said.

This does not only create problems for those working at the incinerators, but also the collection services.

“When we collect waste, for example from the 800 public rubbish bins on the municipality's streets, we do not check the contents of those bags before delivering the waste to the incinerators,” Pierre explained.

“But it does happen that our rubbish trucks are checked at Bruxelles Propreté. If nitrous oxide is then found, we receive a notification. Several notifications lead to a sanction, which we have since received.”

After getting such a sanction, that means collectors are denied access to the incinerators for five days. When that occurs, there is no other option but to temporarily store their waste themselves.

Bruxelles Propreté has proposed a sorting alternative to the municipalities, but the extra costs are then also at their expense.

“An alternative processing centre is not an option either, because that comes to more than double the current amount for us,” Pierre said.

“That is just not feasible – our budget depends on the municipal budget.”

In the meantime, a decrease in the number of laughing gas canisters that make their way into municipal rubbish seems unlikely.

“And once we can use Bruxelles Propreté's incinerators again, I cannot possibly guarantee that there are no nitrous oxide cartridges among our waste,” Pierre said.

“We cannot start systematically filtering our bins. There is neither budget nor staff for that.”

While the sale of nitrous oxide to minors is banned, simply restricting the product is practically impossible, the cabinet of justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said.

Experts agree: Jan Tytgat of KU Leuven explained that laughing gas “is and remains a propellant, used for example by bakers to put pressure on cream cans, or used in hospitals as an anaesthetic.”

But abuse of nitrous oxide is a fairly recent phenomenon, says Tytgat, and users often order the drug easily over the internet.

“It is a fairly low-threshold, perhaps even harmless-looking drug whose effect has gradually become more popular among teenagers and young people,” Tygat said.

But while inhaling the gas induces an initial feeling of euphoria, “the intoxication is often followed by effects such as headaches, dizziness, fainting and sometimes loss of consciousness. With frequent and intensive use, physical dependence grows and the risk of B12 deficiency also increases. Long-term use can therefore lead to anaemia.”

It is also potentially life-threatening, Tygat explained, because the gas can explode if fire – including a simple lit cigarette – is nearby. There’s also an effect on bystanders when the gas is being used.

The same problem of nitrous oxide abuse is also growing in Flanders, according to the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities.

Written by Helen Lyons