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‘Mountains of rubbish visible from space’: waste management in Belarus

This October, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka complained about “mountains of rubbish in Belarus visible from space.” Noting a particular problem with the accumulation of rubbish in the capital, the president urged the development of new long-term approaches to waste...

This October, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka complained about “mountains of rubbish in Belarus visible from space.” Noting a particular problem with the accumulation of rubbish in the capital, the president urged the development of new long-term approaches to waste management. 

Annually, Belarus produces nearly 4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste alone. In 2016, it buried 84 percent in landfills, recycling only about 16 per cent of it. While this rate is moving closer to EU levels of recycling, the effective sorting of waste to separate additional recyclables lags behind.

Most of Belarus’s rubbish is sent to overloaded landfills. Surprisingly, private Belarusian recycling facilities have to import waste from abroad to keep working at full capacity. This is because Belarusian Housing and Communal Services hesitates to give up its monopoly on garbage collection.

Recycling trends

In recent years, Belarus has taken steps to commit to a zero-waste economy. Since 2015, the Target99 campaign has been actively promoting the sorting of rubbish in an effort to maximise recycling rates. In 2012, Belarus recycled only 10 per cent of waste materials, while in 2015 this figure rose to 15.6 per cent.

Waste Management in Belarus and in the EU. Source: tut.by

Waste Management in Belarus and in the EU. Source: tut.by

The rates of traditional recycling are moving closer to European figures, according to Natallia Gryncevich, director of the state-run enterprise Secondary Resource Operator. Yet Belarus still does not implement a wider variety of methods in waste management, including organic waste composting and the use of solid waste as fuel in power plants.

Currently, Belarus sorts municipal solid waste into four groups: paper, plastic, glass and all other unsorted waste. However, facilities lack the capacity to recycle a number of materials. For instance, there are no recycling options for clothing items or Tetra Pak cartons. The latter end up in landfills or abroad. The situation with clothing is less critical, since ‘free’ markets, donation drives and online sharing communities offer a better alternative to unsorted waste containers.

On a positive note, recycling practices are slowly growing. For instance, BelVTI, a company specialising in recycling electrical components, has recently pioneered recycling of batteries and launched its own eco-taxi service, picking up used equipment for free. In the future, Belarus plans to introduce a deposit-return system for glass, PET bottles and aluminium cans. Economic incentives for the population would likely improve waste separation.

Source: tut.by

Source: tut.by

In the recent years, Belarusians have been actively developing eco-friendly habits. According to a survey by the Center for Environmental Solutions on the ecological behaviour of Belarusians for the period of 1990–2015, currently 65–70 per cent of the population separate waste, while another 12 percent are keen to start doing it.

State Monopoly on Waste

In Belarus, the Housing and Communal Services Ministry is responsible for all waste management. In 2012, it established the Secondary Resource Operator, a state-run enterprise, currently acting as the sole intermediary between waste collection and recycling companies.

According to the director of the Waste Sorting Station Zapadnaija, Dzmitry Kuchuk, the Housing and Communal Services Ministry profits from its monopoly on waste collection and transportation. This process does not require a lot of resources, yet brings in a stable income for the state.

The Housing and Communal Services Ministry, as a sole provider, does not have incentives to minimise its expenses and is entitled to additional subsidised funding from local municipalities. This results in restrictive conditions for private business, and eventually even harm for the environment.

From 2015–2016, private company EcoFlekS got into conflict with Orsha municipality over waste resources. EcoFlekS wanted to collect PET-bottles from a local landfill. Municipal powers refused permission, fearing that a private secondary materials supplier could compete with its own garbage sorting facility. Yet according to estimates, nearly 95 per cent of all plastic bottles in Orsha ended up in a landfill.

As greenbelarus.by reports, the next link in the chain, Belarus’s largest PET-bottle recycling company, RePlus-M, could have profited from a better supply of input materials. For 12 years, RePlus-M, a project supported by Austrian investment, has been struggling to work at a full capacity. Belarusian authorities are unwilling to give up their monopoly on waste collection. RePlus-M must to import nearly 30–40 per cent of its plastic waste from abroad.

Cooperation with foreign investors still proceeds at a snail’s pace. In 2010, Minsk municipal authorities signed an agreement with German company Remondis to establish a joint waste management company, Remondis Minsk. While Remondis pioneered the public-private partnership in waste management, for several years its tasks remained limited to collection and transportation of waste. Only in 2017 did Remondis finally announce plans to open a facility to recycle biodegradable and construction waste near Minsk.

At a crossroads: recycling or burning

Existing sorting and recycling facilities in Belarus lack the necessary capacities for the current levels of waste production. For instance, only three waste sorting facilities operate in Minsk, which is insufficient to process all the capital’s waste. The lion’s share of rubbish goes to landfills.

At a waste sorting facility near Minsk. Source: svaboda.org

At a waste sorting facility near Minsk. Source: svaboda.org

In October 2017, speaking at the Republican Seminar on the Development of Communal and Housing Services, the Belarusian president addressed the need for modernising landfills and exploring new ways of managing waste, including the recycling or burning of waste to satisfy energy needs. Over 90 per cent of landfills in Belarus were built in Soviet times. Maximum capacity will soon be reached and their continued use does not guarantee safety.

Currently, the National Strategy for Solid Municipal Waste and Secondary Materials Management, adopted in 2016 for the period up t0 2035, outlines priorities for waste management in Belarus. It focuses on setting up a bottle deposit return system, closing rubbish chutes in residential buildings and introducing composting schemes. Belarus also has plans to establish the production of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) for industry and to build its first incineration facility near Minsk. 

However, experts warn that an incineration facility might result in additional pollution and high operating costs. According to a spokesman from Greenpeace Russia, Alexey Kiselev, Belarus lags behind the EU in separating waste, which means a higher likelihood of toxic or dangerous waste particles being incinerated or becoming a part of RDFs.

In this respect, investing in waste prevention, the promotion of ecological behaviour and the liberalisation of recycling processes emerge as more sustainable alternatives. To ensure effective recycling, the main tasks for Belarus is to bring the protectionism of the state-run waste management agencies to an end and to remove restrictive regulations for private business. This step would ensure fair competition, better quality services and, last but not least, less harm to the environment.

Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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