Body disposal – the wheelie bins defence case

As far as I am aware, none of the people who suggest the wheelie bins as an obvious disposal method had checked out what happens with the waste at the landfill site. What happens at the landfill site is something of a revelation.

In 1997, the EU mandated that solid waste around Europe had to be managed in a smarter way.

Recycling had to be increased. This was to increase the re-use of old material, decrease the need for new material and cut the amount of landfill required. Hence the Algarve solution of green wheelie bins was augmented with the 3-brown-bell recycling system, and the 4-underground-chamber system.

Toxic material in landfill had to be cut. The Algarve has eco-centres where people can dump toxic rubbish, but people being people, most of this probably goes into the general rubbish bins, thus the landfill site has to strip these out. These toxic materials include circuit boards (TVs, radios, computers, printers, phones etc.). batteries, solvents, medicines, paint, engine oil and the such like.

Material that could be composted was to be separated out and turned into compost. This separation is at the landfill site, as not even the 4-underground-chamber system sorts this out at the front end.

Organic waste going into landfill was to be cut. This organic material degenerates producing methane, and methane is one of the most potent gases contributing to greenhouse gases and global warming.

Portugal’s progress on the directive was examined and document by the EU, and a public report looks at how Portugal, and each of its regions fared. This includes how well or otherwise the Algarve was doing in 2007.

Portugal split the Algarve into two with respect to waste management – Barlavento and Sotavento. These are sailing terms. Barlavento means upwind or windward, where the wind is coming from, and is the western half of the Algarve, covering Sagres, Luz, Lagos, Portimão and Albufeira. Sotavento is leeward or downwind, and is the eastern half running to the border with Spain.


In 2007, Sotavento lagged, and its facilities were slowly coming on-stream. Barlavento was leading, with its systems in place for years.

Landfill in both halves is run by Algar, a joint central/local initiative, and there was to be just one landfill site in each half.

In Barlavento, the site was/is at Porto de Lagos, which, despite its name, is a few miles north of Portimão. All the waste goes there, and the general waste is picked over by teams to extract recyclables, to extract toxic materials, to extract material for composting, to extract as much organic material as possible, and the remainder goes into landfill.

The Barlavento site was inspected in February 2005, and every aspect was in full swing.

The following graphic comes from the Facebook site associated with that visit, and it illustrates what happened to the organic material extracted. It was turned into gas, and just north of the landfill site is a power station that uses this gas to generate electricity.

Landfill gas

The record for this power station is also on-line, and in 2007, it was running at very close to 100% of its annual capacity of 5,000MWhours.

Therefore Barlavento was picking through the general waste in some considerable detail at the time Madeleine disappeared. The chances of getting a human body of Madeleine’s height and weight past such a check are minuscule.

There is a further twist to the Barlavento tale – the white stork.

White storks, along with gulls, visited Barlavento landfill in great numbers, seeing it as an easy food source. The white storks (not the gulls) were being studied by universities in Portugal and in the UK, as well as being a favourite spot for bird-watchers.

Studies were in place in 2007 to check the migration patterns of the storks. Previously, most had migrated to north Africa for, with only around 1,000 remaining in Iberia. By 2008, the number over-wintering in Iberia had risen to over 10,000.

Storks would be ringed and some would have radio trackers fitted. And the watchers would come to Barlavento to check on the storks, using high-magnification binoculars to see how many birds had rings and even what colour those rings were.

I do not have concrete evidence that there were watchers at Barlavento in May 2007, though I have seen a watcher on site a little later, and the tracking sites thank Algar/Barlavento for allowing them access.

White storks mate in March/April, and the eggs are incubated for 5 weeks. Therefore, around late April to May the chicks hatch and the demand for food increases. The graphic shows how crowded these sites become.

White storks

The locals in Luz remain convinced that is was easy to dispose of Madeleine via the wheelie bins in May 2007. That means they are unaware of what happens at the Barlavento landfill site. Thus any perpetrator disposing of Madeleine should be equally ignorant.

Since Madeleine was not found when the waste was being sorted in May 2007, the evidence is overwhelming that her final fate was not disposal in a wheelie bin.

Finally, note the difference with Gonçalo Amaral´s dead Shitzu. That would have either been considered organic material suitable for gas and electricity, or it would have been rejected and ended up in the landfill, fodder for the gulls and the storks.

The defence rests.


16 thoughts on “Body disposal – the wheelie bins defence case

  1. Fascinating! The EU is an amazing thing… does all this great work that people (me included) take for granted or don’t know about at all.

    Do workers (God love them) really sort through the lot by hand, though? Or are they shifting the rubbish about in JCBs and if they spot something organic/toxic they pull it out. I tell you, if that were my job, I’d be looking for any excuse not to get out of the JCB and plunge into the refuse. I’d turn a blind eye to so many TVs and shitzus that you wouldn’t believe.

    Average Joe does not know, though. Very good point. Culprit would likely see the bin as a perfect way to rid himself of a corpse. (Possible exception being if said culprit were a binman himself, as previously suggested regarding one previous suspect)

    That’s a really compelling case you make, EC. Birdwatchers and binmen a plenty… I’d want to have seen them both in action around the time before I pushed evidence against bin deposition to overwhelming. Just how vigilant are the bird nerds? Just how diligent are the tip workers in their horrible job on minimum wage, though?

    As I said, if it were me, and I had to work that shift, I’d clock in, move the refuse from as great a distance as possible, clock out and head for Kelly’s pub to stink the place out and spend my daily miniscule wage on some potent liquor, with the number of shitzus given about the environment totalling zero.

    • Can I be certain the workers at Barlavento were fastidious that day? Quite obviously not.

      All I can go with is the overall figures. The site hit 99% on annual power production, so it was definitely separating. It was composting too, which also requires sifting.

      The bottom line is simple. For those who say the McCanns simply stuffed Madeleine into a wheelie bin, I have got to say, reality does not support this.

      • 99% of what? They got the gas station to produce 99% of its capacity? That 99% can hardly be a total of organic material removed, can it?

      • I mean, theoretically, for all we know, 2% of the total of organic waste could suffice to run that gas energy converting station to 99% of its capacity, while leaving 98% of organic waste in the land-fill. Extreme example, but my point is the 99% efficacy of the station clearly is not directly linked to the fraction of organic waste removed to organic waste left in the tip.

      • Quite clearly they did NOT remove all of the organic material. If they had, there would be no storks and no gulls picking over the waste.

        The test is not – did they sort the material 100% – which clearly they did not.

        The test is – were they trying to take out the stuff for compost? Tick.

        Were they trying to get enough organic material to run the power plant at near 100%? Tick.

        Were they sifting through the general waste to remove the toxic materials? Tick. That one for me is the big tick. Removing the toxic materials that folks stuck in the wheelie bins. I have problems in seeing a 1-metre plus package, weighing 12 to 16 kg, getting past this check. Perhaps it did. But if I was sitting on a jury, I would be sceptical.

    • You’re a bit defensive over this, it seems? Or am I getting the wrong idea? My point stands, but I won’t say any more about it. Excuse me if I came across as overly critical. I didn’t intend to. I really liked your article, as it raised issues I had not an idea about, and was thoughtfully done. Great work, anyway.

      All the best.

  2. ShininginLuz, have you visited Chão Frio ? Have you visited the estação de transferência where the resíduos sólidos are compacted before being taken to the Aterro sanitário do Barlavento ?

      • I’ve not been there, ShininginLuz, but would I make sure the landfill wasn’t the last destination for Madeleine MC, I would get some excuse to visit Chão Frio (37º12’44.02 – N • 08º31’40.01 – O) and more importantly the estação de transferência (north of Lagos, it has only been described to me as the solid residues processing unit).
        I asked if a big dog dumped into a bin would have been spotted, they said no.

      • I hadn’t heard of Chão Frio before, but I believe that Porto de Lagos (which isn’t near Lagos) and Chão Frio are one and the same.

        Solid residues sounds right. That was what the European directive was about. Algar is the joint effort between central authority and local authority to meet the European directive.

        Aterro Sanitário do Barlavento
        Chão Frio – Porto de Lagos 8500 PORTIMÃO
        T – +351 282 460 520 F- +351 282 460 529 Horário de Funcionamento
        2.ª a Sábado: 08:00 às 18:00

        Aterro Sanitário do Sotavento
        Vale Maria Dias – Cortelha Salir 8100-170 LOULÉ
        T – +351 289 846 010 F – +351 289 846 019 Horário de Funcionamento
        2.ª a Sábado 08:00 às 18:00

        Two centres, one on the Western Algarve (Barlavento), here described as Chão Frio, Porto de Lagos, the other on the eastern Algarve (Sotavento).

        The 2007 figures show that the methane plant at Porto de Lagos was near to 100% capacity. The EU figures show it was better than most of Portugal.

        Would a big dog have got through? My answer is yes, I believe it would. There was enough left-overs to keep the scavengers (storks and gulls) happy.

        I thought about this question in relation to Amaral’s story where he does not have the time to dig a grave for his dead dog, so he dumps it in the bin instead. Where would that dog have ended up? The people sorting the rubbish at Porto de Lagos would have sorted it into the rubbish going into landfill, knowing that the scavengers would clean up the carcass for them.

        However, a child’s body is quite different. No one would have thought to stick a child’s body into landfill on the basis that scavengers would pick it clean.

        Dog, yes. Child, no.

  3. Any potentially toxic device or inorganic stuff is called “monstro” and collected by the camara municipal on just a phone call.

    • C’mon Anne.

      Do you want to see a photo of the toxic stuff sitting outside my local 4 bin system at this very moment?

      Are you saying that where only the green wheelie bin system was in place everyone called the camara municipal for toxic waste? If so, why was a European directive needed?

      I can remember some of the developments England went though, so here is my recollection.

      We had to PAY FOR a green bin first. That took garden clippings, but NOT household waste.

      Then there were some trays. Glass in one. Metal or metal and plastic in a second, not quite sure. I don’t remember being asked to sort out paper/cardboard, but I could be wrong.

      Then batteries. These were to be taken back to the places that sold batteries, places which were forced to put disposal units in place.

      Then electrical equipment. I can’t remember where this fitted in. However, at some point you could take electrical equipment back to electrical retailers and they were forced to handle it for free.

      Portugal worked differently to achieve the same system. That very definitely required in May 2007 the hand sorting of ambiguous packages to sort out the toxic content. There was a load of it in those days, and there still is.

  4. I’m not sure I understand what you mean. People used to dump anywhere what they wanted to get rid of. Not only in Portugal, on the Côte d’Azur they did it too.
    Now people are a bit more civilized and, this helped, retailers are forced by law, in Portugal, to take your old fridge when you buy a new one and to bring it to the apropriated place. If you want to get rid of a TV set without buying a new one because you in fact never watch TV, then the Camara municipal will come and collect your “monstro”. What I just mean is that the garbage truck doesn’t mix up monstros with garbage.

    • Anne,

      I have experienced the Camara Municipal service, as in the first house we hired in Luz was supposed to be clean but was covered in so much junk the only way we could get rid of it was that the CM came and picked it up. When they picked it up, everything went into the same lorry, but it was clear they were stacking it so that at the other end it would be easy to keep the different types of waste separate.

      In the place I rent now, the dish-washer had died, so we insisted that the owner got a new one. The new one came and was installed very quickly. I had to sign that the new one was installed. And I had to sign that the old one had been taken away, and that form (from memory) said that there was a 25€ disposal charge.

      I did not buy or arrange the installation of the dish-washer. If the owners could have saved themselves 25€ by simply stacking the dishwasher outside and calling the Camara, that is up to them. We simply wanted a dish-washer that washed dishes.

  5. Charging for disposal is out of law. Of course the price of any new thing includes the disposal costs. Very recently I bought a new fridge. They brought the new one and took the old one away. They can charge for the installation of the new device (in the case of a fridge it is impossible because it has to stabilize for hours before you switch it on), but not for the disposal of the old device.

  6. Chão Frio is above the N124 that goes to Silves. If you enter the GPS references, Google will bring you there and satellite view will show you the huge nets that are on top of the landfill in order to keep away the scavenger birds.
    Actually what is brought to the landfill is no garbage, but pads of desiccated substance. The crucial process of transforming garbage into pads doesn’t occur in Chão Frio, but in the Estação de transferência, no norte de Lagos, where the lorries bring the content of the bins.

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