Russia's big problem with waste

Written by: Vladislav Vorotnikov | Published:
There has been an unexpectedly strong resistance from residents living close to planned waste incineration plants

Russia says it wants to process 80% of its waste by 2030 – a rise from only 4% in 2015.

This ambitious goal will apparently be achieved through the establishment of a separate waste collection system and by building recycling plants in almost all regions of the country. However, with the plan now in its third year, it is clear that the project is not exactly going to plan.

Since 2016, Russia’s producers and importers have been obliged to recycle 10-30% of the waste they generate. When introducing this requirement, the federal authorities also gave businesses a choice in how to fulfil it. They could build their own recycling facilities, or hire a third party to recycle the waste.

Last year, a new option to pay an ‘ecological fee’ was introduced. In return for paying the fee, companies’ waste would be collected by a state operator. The rate was set at RUB2,738 (£32) per metric tonne (mt) of paper, RUB3,844 (£46) per mt of plastic, RUB2,423 (£29) per mt of metal cans, and so on.

In 2017, the federal government was expecting to collect up to RUB10bn (£118m) in ecological fees. The belief was that most businesses would prefer to pay the fee rather than organise their own waste collection and recycling. However, the state collected only RUB1.5bn (£18m) last year.

The figure was so low not because most companies opted to recycle their waste themselves (or use an outside company to do so), but because most regions still lacked a waste collection system.

Speaking in March, minister for natural resources Sergey Donskoy said that each Russian region was working hard to establish a waste collection system, but local legislative complexities and differences in infrastructure meant it would take up to 10 years for the whole country to be covered. On a positive note, he said such efforts would contribute to the development of the waste recycling industry.

The slow pace of change has angered environmentalists. “Russia made the second and the third steps in the right direction but forgot to make the first one,” said Eugene Bobrov, deputy chairman of the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. He cited Moscow, where there are enough waste recycling plants but most of them have no waste to work with, because not enough is being collected and sorted.

No incentives have been put in place to encourage the separation and collection of residential and business waste, Bobrov said. As a result, waste management companies cannot operate, even “with the best will in the world” – meaning Russia’s waste recycling project has yet to get going.

There is another factor that could jeopardise the establishment of a proper waste recycling industry in the country. The current uncertainty around waste collection means potential recycling is losing out to waste incineration projects. There are real fears among campaigners that the current problems around recycling will not be solved in the foreseeable future, and Russia will continue to burn its waste.

Waste incineration projects

The biggest project in the area of waste management in Russia is being implemented by RT-Invest, a subsidiary of state-owned corporation Rostec. It plans to build four waste incineration plants in Moscow Oblast, plus at least three similar facilities in other regions of the country, using, it says, the best available technologies with the zero footprints.

In Moscow Oblast, the cost of each plant is estimated at RUB31bn (£366m), with a capacity of 700,000 mt per year. The four plants combined will therefore incinerate up to 2.8 million mt of waste annually – equal to 60% of the waste generated in the region.

According to CEO of RT-Invest Andrey Shipelov, the ultimate goal is to avoid any burial of waste within Moscow Oblast’s landfills. The company has also won a competitive bid for the right to establish a waste collection system in the region, recognising that different types of wastes should be incinerated in different ways.

However, Rostec has faced unexpectedly strong resistance from residents living close to the planned waste incineration plants. In the Solnechnogorsk area of Moscow Oblast, where the company intends to build one of its facilities, ecological activists have been protesting against the project since last autumn.

In the neighbouring Voskresensk area, where another plant is to be established, locals formed a protest in March that caught the attention of national media, prompting public discussions about the country’s burgeoning environmental movement.

In addition to Moscow, Rostec plans to build waste incineration plants near St Petersburg and Kazan, and there the picture is very similar, with people protesting in both cities.

These protests could bring down the entire incineration project. Unless it obtains a positive response at its public hearings, Rostec will not be able to build the plants. St Petersburg, for example, has a long history of public struggle against waste incineration, with citizens forcing such projects to be cancelled in 2010 and 2015.

Furthermore, the building of incineration plants is not the solution to Russia’s waste problem, according to Lazar Shubov, chairman of environmental group Ashmen of Moscow. In contrast to recycling, these projects carry high ecological risks, have enormous costs and are limited to a lifespan of only 25 years, he stressed.

However, the governor of Moscow Oblast, Andrey Vorobyev, has said the most important thing now is to convince people that these plants will operate safely, rather than scrap the project. Investors and the authorities must explain to citizens that filters installed at the plants will protect them from harm, he added.

But doing so won’t be easy. In a similar story, citizens had protested against a waste incineration plant at the Malinki landfill in Moscow City. The regional authorities were planning to invest RUB5.4bn (£64m) to expand the landfill and build the new plant, but in March, under the weight of public pressure, refused to give the project the green light.

If Rostec does eventually succeed in building its incineration plants in Moscow, it is likely to lead to such projects spreading all over Russia – to the detriment of any recycling ambitions. As such, many people in the country are waiting to see how Rostec’s current battle with residents and environmentalist pans out.

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