Madrid shows its colors

A city tour with Alejandro Arderíus and Juan Carriedo through the secret capital of the circular economy

The people of Madrid claim that only heaven is a better place to be than their home city. And indeed, the sky above us shines in unearthly blue and the Palacio de Cibeles in immaculate white as we cross the Paseo del Prado. Here, in front of the city hall of the Spanish global metropolis, we have an appointment with Alejandro and Juan, two men who, together with the city‘s leaders, have succeeded in making Madrid a role model of the global urban circular economy.

After a warm welcome, we start our tour through one of Europe‘s most beautiful cities. Alejandro Arderíus introduces himself as General Manager of SULO Ibérica, the Spanish subsidiary of the SULO Group. His friendly colleague Juan Carriedo is the director of the service organization and, as he tells us with a smile, a convinced Atlético fan. Atlético or Real, red and white or just white – that seems to be the all-important question in the anteroom of heaven. For us, the decisive question is: light grey or dark grey, or in other sense, what does the colour change of bins in Madrid have to do with protecting the environment? Obviously, due to this change 125 tons of plastic can be recycled per year and a corresponding amount of fossil raw materials is saved.

While we walk under the trees of the Paseo in the direction of the Museo del Prado, Alejandro and Juan explain to us which traditional bond connects SULO with the city of Madrid and what dimensions we are talking about in this context. Juan stops at one of the grey, elegant litter bins and points out that there are a total of 65,000 Cibeles litter bins placed all over the city, designed exclusively for Madrid. As we continue on our way, we realize that SULO litter bins are indeed an omnipresent element of the city‘s furniture and thus play a significant role in shaping the city‘s appearance. But litter bins only play a side role in our story. Shortly thereafter, we face the façade of the Prado, the world-class Spanish museum where all the great masters of Spanish painting are on display. Velázquez sits confidently on a monumental pedestal above us, armed with palette and brush. We settle at his feet to enjoy the atmosphere.

Light grey bins have shaped the cityscape since 1984

“We have had a very good relationship with the city of Madrid since 1984. That‘s when our predecessor organization, Plastic Omnium, introduced the light grey body. Light grey with an orange lid, this is the bin that every child in Madrid knows.“ There is little activity in front of the Prado these days, so we continue our walk and drift westward through picturesque streets like Calle de las Huertas towards Plaza Mayor. From 5 p.m. on, the bins are usually placed on the streets for collection, but even at this hour we pass many bins in courtyards and house entrances.

“We have had a very good relationship

with the city of Madrid since 1984”

Next to them already the new dark grey ones with brown lids can be seen. Juan reports that as part of the campaign to introduce the organic waste fraction, over 50,000 dark grey organic waste bins have already been distributed. He mentions that the distribution began two years ago and was completed in December 2020. A total of another 300,000 bins, of which SULO is responsible for maintaining, will gradually be replaced by the new model. Wow, these are dimensions. Due to my respect for Juan‘s passion for the Rojo y Blanco, I avoid the word “galactic“ to describe my amazement. Anyway, who would really be surprised in a city that claims to build the most modern stadium in the world and, as we were able to witness with our own eyes during a walk through the Chamartín neighborhood, really does. At the Plaza Mayor there is time for a coffee and more questions.

Dark grey says: I am 100 % recycled

“As it became obvious that SULO fully mastered the principle of the circular economy and that we could produce high-quality bins made exclusively from shredded used bins and post-consumer recyclates, it was absolutely clear to us: this is a milestone for sustainability, we will fall on open ears with this,“ Alejandro recalls and his eyes take on a rapturous gleam. Juan nods, and it‘s unmistakable that the two managers are on fire for their mission. “We then went to our contact Víctor Sarabia Herrero at the city government and asked for an appointment to present the new concept.“

“It was absolutely clear to us:
this is a milestone for sustainability.”

Juan‘s gaze wanders across the sprawling square, which has been home to all kinds of craftsman from knife grinders to bakers since the 16th century. We are in the heart chamber of Spanish history and have the feeling that the heartbeat can still be heard today. In some times more, in some less. In the present, we witness the course being set for a clean and sustainable future.

“What‘s the reason for dark grey, why don‘t the bins just stay light grey?“ Alejandro smirks, as if he had already anticipated this question. “The granules we obtain from the recycled bins and household packaging never have the same colour brilliance as dyed virgin material. You have to accept this disadvantage. Whereas from today‘s point of view it is actually not really a disadvantage, because the dark grey bins integrate visually much more harmoniously into the cityscape. Grey body with colored lid – that‘s perfect and absolutely aesthetic.“ Alejandro pays for the coffee, leaves a tip, and we get up to continue walking to the royal palace. “No citizens have complained about the new color yet,“ Juan interjects, dodging a small group of tourists who stop abruptly to consult their navigation. Overall, the city has a bustling but relaxed atmosphere that suggests the urban hustle remains comfortable, even during normal times.




Madrid‘s visible commitment to environmental protection

For some time now, Madrid has discovered the environmental issue for itself and set an globally recognized example with the traffic-calmed inner-city zone called Madrid Central. The switch to fully recycled and recyclable waste bins is another chapter on this path. “It‘s not that there were no doubts at all. After all, the colour of the bins in Madrid was light grey or yellow for three and a half decades. And besides the question of habit, the visibility of the fractions is extremely important for the city, so that all the waste doesn‘t get mixed up.“

By the time we reach the Royal Palace, the last stop on our city tour for now, we‘re already a bit tired of the ubiquitous architectural splendor, so we‘re all the more pleased to find a green oasis on the west side of the Palace in the Campo del Moro. Here we settle down on a bench to hear about the successful conclusion of the story. Juan remembers that the month after the first presentation was very intense. There were many negotiations in a very short time, but then everything went very quickly, although there existed complicated contractual constellations, because SULO is not always the supplier of the bins, but often “only“ involved in the general disposal process on the basis of service and maintenance contracts.

Juan stands up and buttons his coat. Departure. “In the end, the idea of reusing old bins in the spirit of conserving our natural resources won out.“ Alejandro has already walked a short distance ahead, enjoying the view of the parkland stretching west from the palace to the horizon. “125 tons of recycled plastics per year says it all. Without doubt, the circular economy is the future. We want to do our part to create a clean and smart Madrid.“ With the experience and determination Alejandro and Juan exude, this goal doesn‘t seem too lofty.




¡ De Madrid al Cielo ¡

While we are driving in the electric car of one of the SULO service employees back to the starting point of our tour, namely to the Plaza de Cibeles, in order to get another statement from Victor Sarabia Herrero, the general manager of waste and cleanliness of the city of Madrid, Alejandro raves about the possibilities of digitalization. At the moment, the larger bins and containers in particular are being fitted with level measuring devices, so that in the future disposal can be organized even more efficiently and thus in a more environmentally friendly way. This and the change to ECO colour show that ecological and economic interests are more compatible than ever.

We meet Mr. Sarabia directly in front of the impressive Palacio de Cibeles, which was only converted into the seat of the city administration in 2007 and was previously Madrid‘s main post office. The manager of the cleaning and waste department greets us in an extremely friendly manner and asks if we have had a good day. He expresses his conviction that the ECO-colour-change is a great initiative that will serve as a model for many other cities. When asked what, in the end, had been the decisive motivation for the decision, he ponders for a brief moment before giving the smartest answer imaginable from a public decision-maker: “Our department‘s job is to inspire citizens to sort waste and recycle day after day, then the least we can do as a city is set a good example, don‘t you think?“ Nothing to add to that. We thank him, say goodbye to the refreshingly reflective Mr. Sarabia, and head into the old town for some culinary discoveries.

At the end of a great tour through the antechamber of heaven, we come to the conclusion: Maybe there is something to it, that after Madrid only heaven can be an alternative. In any case, with Alejandro, Juan, and the Spanish team from SULO, we met likeable and dedicated people who are working around the clock to make the world down here a little cleaner, more sustainable, and more livable.




Start of collaboration with the
City of Madrid


SULO litter bins in Madrid


Bin washes per year


Recycled bins per year


SULO bins in Madrid


E-vehicles in the service fleet


Repaired bins per year

125.000 kg

Raw materials recovered from
recycled bins per year


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