By Gederts Gelzis and Barbara Lewis
RIGA/STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - A Soviet-era rubbish dump in a swamp on the outskirts of Riga was once an obstacle to Latvia's European Union membership. Now, it's becoming a model of the resource use and waste management EU policymakers are striving to promote.
For Rigans, the new symbols of the Getlini landfill are yellow tomatoes grown with renewable energy generated from methane produced by waste.
They are pollinated by bumble bees specially imported from Belgium, headquarters of the EU, which made reform of the rat-infested health hazard a requirement for Latvia's EU accession in 2004.
As well as harnessing planet-warming methane, the revamped site, which handles around half of Latvia's rubbish, seals in other pollutants with a layer of clay and has transformed mounds of refuse into grassy slopes on which sheep graze.
The next step is to cut the need for landfill.
The Latvians plan to open a recycling factory near the site in October and have a 10-year goal to reuse between 85 and 90 percent of the 300 tonnes of waste deposited in the landfill every year.
Riga's efforts chime with debate this week at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on resource use.
Members of the assembly called on Monday for an ambitious EU-wide strategy on cutting waste. They are expected to confirm the demands with a vote on Wednesday.
Sirpa Pietikainen, a Finnish member of the center-right European People's Party, drew a parallel with the Greek crisis, saying wasting resources could bankrupt not just a nation but the entire planet.
The 28-country EU, which produces only around 30 percent of the natural resources it needs, will bear the brunt.
"Europe is the most resource-dependent of all the regions. We will be hit the hardest if we don't get it right now," she said.
The European Commission, whose current line-up took office in October, had planned to scrap so-called "circular economy" rules put forward by the previous executive, but politicians and member states were furious at the suggestion.
Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans now promises a new proposal before the end of the year and told the parliament he was "a passionate believer" in the shift from a linear to a circular economy, or one based on reuse and renewable energy.
"I believe in this because it's a huge business opportunity," he said, adding that such a transition was inevitable.
The Commission quotes research that moving towards a circular economy could save around 600 billion euros ($666 billion) over 10 years as, for instance, the cost of cutting emissions drops, health improves and less energy is required.
The Getlini site, owned by the local authorities, was set up a decade ago with $21 million, provided by the Latvian and Swedish authorities and the World Bank.
It employs nearly 100 people and generates annual revenue of nearly 12 million euros, including sales of electricity and more than 450 tonnes of tomatoes.
ING bank, in a report in May, says the financial community must embrace the change from "take, make and waste" to "reduce, reuse and recycle" and analyze which business models will triumph.
The shift in attitude is striking.
Back in Riga, Imants Stirans, chairman of the Getlini board told Reuters that in the 1970s, Riga's authorities just "found the nearest swamp". "Can you imagine a more idiotic place to create a landfill than a swamp?" he asked.
($1 = 0.9012 euros)
(Editing by Dale Hudson)