Whole June/July 1995 Issue #34

Avoiding the Downward Spiral of Waste Management: The Case for An Integrated Approach

by Oleg Cherp Director of N.I.S. Programs Minsk, Belarus

Municipal waste management practices in Russia and in the Eastern European states are now somewhat similar to those of the United States about twenty years ago. It is natural to study the historical lessons from the development of waste management practices in the U.S. in order not to repeat the mistakes once committed by the Americans.

Origins of the American Waste Management Crisis

In the United States, as in other countries, historically, municipal wastes were disposed close to the places where people lived (i.e. at simple municipal dumps). As a result of growing public awareness of the health hazards of garbage disposal at such facilities, stricter waste disposal regulations were adopted. Coupled with negative public attitudes, this made opening new landfills increasingly difficult and resulted in the so-called "landfill crisis" - an insufficiency and increased cost of landfill space. It is interesting to note that "lack" of space is a political rather than a physical problem. Physically there is more than enough space; all municipal solid waste generated in the States for the next 1000 years could be disposed of at one site 30 km x 30 km if the depth of the landfill were 100 m.

However, independent of whether there is a real or just a perceived lack of space, building new landfills becomes more and more costly. The introduction of a "new generation" of municipal waste incinerators in the early 1980s, equipped with sophisticated air pollution control devices, did not solve the problem.

Incinerators generated even more public opposition due to potential dioxin and other air pollution problems and problems with ash disposal. To site an incinerator is every bit as difficult as to site a landfill, and the cost of burning waste is no lower than landfilling it. An interesting phenomenon occurs at this point: the price of waste disposal increases. The waste management market becomes a lucrative one for large companies, sometimes transnational, which tend to build large-scale facilities far from the actual waste generators. The difficulties of siting a disposal facility operated by a large corporation are usually much greater than the efforts necessary to open a small municipal landfill because the public is much more hostile to strangers trying to bring somebody else's garbage into their area. Because of public pressure, politicians insist on the introduction of stricter standards, which further increases the costs. Thus an increasing proportion of waste is handled by the large companies which can afford to meet stricter environmental standards. This results in the increasing hostility of the public and . . . . here we come to the starting point of this "vicious circle" which I call the Downward Spiral of Waste Management.

Avoiding Mistakes of the Past

It is impossible to break this circle of increasing size, costs, and public hostility simply by introducing stricter environmental standards or inventing new technologies of waste management. Rather, the problem has to be attacked at its source and this is what Integrated Waste Management is all about.

The concept of Integrated Waste Management, developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1980s, involves a set of general principles. The main concept emphasizes separating different components of the waste stream (plastics, aluminum, newspaper,food waste, glass, etc.) and handling each one in the most environmentally sound and cost-efficient way. In addition to traditional landfilling and incineration, recycling, source reduction, and composting become an integral part of the waste disposal picture.

The Eastern European countries have just entered the critical stage of development of their waste disposal practices. The amount and variety of their waste stream are rapidly increasing. The burden of municipal waste management is shifted to local governments and municipalities. The local authorities, sometimes supported by NGOs and the public, extensively use the power to refuse siting new waste disposal facilities in their areas. For example, in the city of Dolgoprudny, close to Moscow, the landfill capacity was used two years ago and the city administration has been unsuccessfully trying to site a new landfill for all this time. In Lipetsk, opening a new landfill generated a great public controversy, and the issue has been debated by the city administration for over a year.

If the governments and the people of Eastern European countries were to adopt and implement the principles of integrated waste management, they would avoid getting into a waste management crisis, and would not face the troubles associated with getting out of it.

Civic Culture and the Will to Recycle

When I presented these ideas in August 1994 during my lecture on Integrated Waste Management at the Central European University in Budapest, a student from Hungary questioned my analysis. She pointed to the fact that the efforts to introduce municipal recycling in her country seem to be hopeless. The bins for recyclable materials such as glass and aluminum cans placed on the streets of Budapest seem to be filed with all kinds of rubbish except for the one they are designated for.

She asserted that people in Eastern Europe have been so spoiled by communist rule, their morale has so completely deteriorated, and they are so suppressed by economic hardship that they cannot participate in recycling activities.

To respond to this challenge, I recalled that in Soviet times during some embryonic recycling efforts of the 1970s, all over the country, plans were set to collect food scraps separately from other domestic refuse. I remember an angry passionate note voluntarily put up by one of the neighbors on the wall above a bin for food scrap installed in my apartment building in Minsk. The note said: "Comrades! Isn't it shameful, being Soviet Citizens, to discard garbage in a bin for food scrap?!"

I further recalled the well-known fact that the rate of recycling is highest in Japan, a country well-known for its so-called "communal spirit." The communal spirit means, among other things, the strong tendency to follow examples of social behavior set up in the community; it includes the inclination toward "doing the right thing" regardless of economic stimulus.

My colleague Vadim Vinichenko has suggested that the "communal spirit" of the Russian people has not vanished. During the most recent election campaign in Moscow, most successful politicians appealed to such a spirit to communicate to their electorate. It was admirable that in a post-Soviet society seemingly filled with social apathy and indifference, people were ready to participate in local social and political life. They took responsibility for local community affairs by forming "neighborhood committees", organizing meetings to decide on important issues and to elect representatives to convey their messages to municipal governments. This type of enthusiasm may be the best thing to utilize, along with market incentives, to set up local recycling schemes in societies with similarities to Russia.

Indeed across the globe, local recycling efforts seem to tap into a need to affirm individual and community automony. One way in which people can assert control over their lives is to control the disposal of their wastes, particularly when they become aware that these "wastes" contain valuable resources which could help their country's economy. Organization of recycling is most effective on the local level, and has been a focus of NGO efforts in many countries.

As to the failure of recycling programs in Budapest - such situations have to be carefully analyzed in each particular case. There are many instances when only the exterior of Western recycling programs (dumpsters for recyclables, for example) were copied in Eastern European countries. The other elements of the successful recycling scheme (advertising, incentives, legislative measures and enforcement) were not put in place. Experience shows that superficially translated measures have never resulted in the replication of the meaningful results.

Principles of Integrated Waste Management

  1. All elements of the society are RESPONSIBLE for the waste crisis, and all are part of the solution.
  2. The waste stream is made up of DISTINCT COMPONENTS that can be managed and disposed of SEPARATELY.
  3. A COMBINATION of techniques and programs, including: source reduction, recycling and composting, and landfilling should be used to manage the targeted portions of the municipal waste stream. Each one of the series of programs should be designed to COMPLEMENT the others.
  4. A municipal solid waste management system should be designed to address a specific set of LOCAL solid waste management problems, based on local resources. LOCAL EXPERTISE should be built through implementing the START SMALL principle.
  5. Integrated waste management is based on strategic long-term planning, providing FLEXIBILITY to address possible future changes in the municipal solid waste stream and technologies. Assessment, monitoring and evaluation should be on-going processes.
Oleg Cherp can be contacted through ECOLOGIA's Belarus or Moscow offices.

Ephemeral Organizations:Building Traditions

Some organizations are ephemeral. They are created to deal with one particular situation, and then disband when that problem is solved. For example, The Endless Mountains Forum was formed in rural Pennsylvania in 1978, by seven couples who were concerned about the lack of information about and involvement in local public issues in their county. At informal dinner gatherings at members' houses, they chose a name and decided to hold public meetings about local issues, such as land use and development, hunger among local people, and acid rain. The group also held Meet the Candidates Nights before local elections, allowing candidates to explain their ideas and to answer questions from the general public. Forum members paid dues of $10 per year, and contributed their time to make telephone calls, distribute flyers, and conduct meetings.

After a few years, the Forum's activities ceased. Some of the Forum's most active members moved out of the area. Those remaining met several times, but did not feel the urgent need to plan any more public meetings. However, the precedent for holding public meetings on county issues had been established, and was continued by other organizations. Local officials had more respect for the views of citizens, after attending meetings organized by them, and continued to hold their own meetings.

An outside funder (had there been one) might have been disappointed at the Forum's demise. No enduring structure had been created. Looking back, however, the Forum was not a failure. Its members had created a mechanism to meet a variety of needs, both social and political. When the Forum was no longer necessary, it dissolved. But its members had learned about the organizations, laws and social and political structure of the county. They had met many of its influential people. They carried this knowledge with them, and used it to contribute to other groups they joined in the future. Also, realizing the popularity of "Meet the Candidates" meetings, other organizations moved into the vacuum and began to sponsor them.

Many miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and more than a decade later, people throughout the formerly Soviet-dominated nations have been using their new freedoms to contribute to similar processes. In a recent instance, a group of citizens in Salacgriva, Latvia decided to do something to keep used batteries out of local landfills. They created themselves as a new branch of the (already established) Latvian Society of Nature Conservation, and obtained a grant of $450 USD. They organized a campaign to collect used batteries. Fact sheets were compiled, printed and distributed, explaining the dangers of discarding used batteries in landfills. Explanations of the collection procedure were placed in local newspapers. Stationary and mobile collection boxes were made and distributed by local student volunteers. Once the project was underway, it was given additional financial support by the municipal government, which also agreed to collect the batteries. This campaign, initiated by an NGO, showed public support for safer means of battery recycling. The municipal government agreed to continue the project in the next year.

The achievements of the Salacgriva project went beyond the development of recycling: all those who participated also contributed to building a tradition of active participation in their community.

Small Projects: Building Blocks of Larger Organizations

Some organizations initially form to complete one project, have some success, and then look around for other related tasks to accomplish. One Lithuanian biologist and teacher joined the Atgaya Club in Kaunas, a branch of the Lithuanian Green Movement, obtained a water quality monitoring kit in 1994, and received a small grant ($ 468 USD) to teach students how to use it. The purpose was "to help children to learn how environmental protection projects are prepared and realized. In the process of the project children learn about how water quality is monitored, what are the main pollutants, where they come from, and what can and should be done to reduce the pollution." This activity drew so much attention that increasing numbers of students, and other teachers, wanted to join. For 1995, this teacher expanded her project, getting a $750 USD grant to study a different stream, and also to prepare lesson plans for teachers based on the experience collected during that study. She organized seminars for teachers interested in environmental education (mainly biology teachers), explained the use of water monitoring projects in teaching, and handed out the materials she had prepared. Working with other teachers and scientists, she is currently expanding the training to teachers in 60 schools throughout Lithuania. One small project has become a nationwide support network.

Small Projects: Links to Local Communities

Small projects also help existing large organizations to re-define themselves and connect with community needs. They can attract new members because they depend on volunteer labor for success. They appeal to a broader base of the population because they respond to local needs.

The Estonian Green Movement was founded in 1987, using the opportunities of glasnost and perestroika to organize public response to Soviet environmental threats to the country, particularly a proposal to develop large phosphorite mines. The wave of public support for the EGM reflected the growing expression of nationalism and the independence movement. But after the original goals had been achieved, public support for the Estonian Green Movement declined.

Some individual environmentalists remained active, and have maintained the EGM structure of groups in different towns. They are now working on specific projects focused on local needs. For example, in response to several incidents in Estonia where discarded radioactive materials found their way into people's homes and businesses, the Estonian Green Movement group in Tartu recently purchased a radiation detector with a grant of $660 USD. Their goal is to investigate different areas, to locate radioactive objects, and to inform authorities and the public about dangerous findings.

The effectiveness of their purchase of the radiation detector will depend on the extent to which it is used to accurately locate problem areas and materials, the way the public is informed of problems, and the success of EGM members in working with local and national elected officials, members of the environmental ministry, and the citizens.

Small Projects as "Pilot Projects" for Replication and Expansion

One member of the Lithuanian Ornithological Society was concerned about the loss of nesting habitat for rare species of birds. He has parlayed this concern into the first peat bog remediation project in Lithuania, which has become a model for the Lithuanian Environmental Ministry. The Dovainai Peat Bog Remediation Project was started with a grant of $500. The first step was a study to gather data on protected plant species which survived in a 25 hectare peat bog adjacent to Zemaitia National Park. The second step was the preparation of a detailed remediation plan, and to start some remedial work.

In the following year, several islands were created. Participants have also carefully selected and planted species of plants which had been present in the bog before sections were dug up. This project is now being viewed as a model for others throughout the Baltic region, and has attracted additional sources of support for its expansion.

Organizing to Complete a Small Project

The following steps are useful when organizing a group of people for a small or first-time project:
  1. Define a clear and attainable goal In discussions during the planning stage, move from the general to the specific. For example, from worries about trash all over the city to a project to clean up one public park.
  2. Involve volunteers Volunteers contribute according to their interests and abilities. They are usually vital to the success of a small project. Not only do they work, they spread the news about the activity. Pride in achieving a tangible result, new-found friends, and the company of others working as a team, are some of the rewards of volunteering. It takes time to develop a "volunteer ethic" in a society, but each volunteer helps to establish the practice.
  3. Inform others in your community about the project Even if they react skeptically at first, they will be interested. Local newspaper, radio and television reporters will often be glad to have a new story. Support may arrive from unexpected sources if enough people learn about your efforts.
  4. Plan for a visible result Through the achievement of visible results such as publication of a pamphlet or clean-up of a riverfront, the NGO members, and their previously uninvolved friends, relatives and neighbors, see the rewards of their efforts. This can provide them with the confidence to move on to other projects.
  5. Ask for contributions of money It is easier to ask for $5 than for $500. When the amount of money needed for a project is relatively small, people from the commuity are more likely to contribute. Often "start up" money from a small international grants project gets an NGO project started, and then other funders are more willing to contribute.
  6. Document the results. Photographs of the activity can be very valuable to illustrate the work that was done. So can journal entries or other accounts by participants, and local newspaper and magazine articles.

Organizing to Expand a Small Project and To Build An NGO

Evidence of the successful completion of one project is the best step for the continuation or expansion of an organization. If a group grows and feels ready to carry out additional or larger projects, its "track record" (record of experience) can help it to obtain support from international organizations as well as from local and national sources. Expertise in writing a proposal, developing and working within a budget, and reporting results become valuable assets of the group and its individual members.

As success leads to further successes, the activities of many non-governmental organizations contribute to a dynamic society. As more people grow accustomed to taking responsibility for actions to improve their own communities, an ethic of constructive public participation spreads. This example and enthusiasm are contagious, and empower others.

Often the term "organizational capacity" is rather narrowly used to refer only to the long term survival of a variety of medium and large professional organizations. However, equally important for organizational capacity is the societal base of expectations and support for public participation behavior. In many ways, the small projects of a variety of NGOs build such a base, and thus contribute to the civic culture.

ECOLOGIA's Baltic Mini-Grant Program

All of the small-scale Baltic projects described in this issue were financed through ECOLOGIA's Baltic Environmental Mini-Grant Program. This program is financed in its turn by The Moriah Fund, a private American foundation. Since its inception in 1993, the goal of the Baltic Mini-Grant has been to strengthen the NGO environmental movement in the three Baltic nations, through providing small ($250 - $750) grants to NGOs to pursue specific projects of their own design. The program is now in its third year.

In each nation (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) an Advisory Committee publicizes the availability of the grants in the languages of each country, holds workshops to teach interested environmentalists how to design and write a project proposal and draw up a budget, and makes recommendations on the most suitable projects to be funded each year. Recommendations are then reviewed by ECOLOGIA's Baltic Programs Office in Vilnius, Lithuania. Recipients submit an interim and a final report, both of which include documentation of their activities and a budget statement. Recipients also inform ECOLOGIA of matching funds their projects receive.

The Mini-Grant projects have served to revitalize some already established groups (by giving them an incentive to focus on an achievable, visible project). Some well- established groups operating larger projects with other sources of money, have sought out newer or less well financed groups in rural locations, and notified them and encouraged them to apply for Mini-Grants. This has been especially true in Latvia. Although the population of Riga, the capital city, is more than half that of the entire country, the second year's Mini-Grant projects were almost entirely from first-time grantees, newly formed groups in rural areas or in smaller cities.

Most importantly, these small project grants have encouraged new NGOs and innovative projects. Groups without previous grant experience are more likely to apply for, and to receive, a small amount of money targeted for a specific attainable project, than a large amount of money for a vague or overly ambitious project.

ECOLOGIA's Mini-Grant program is only available for the Baltic nations, but other organizations fund similar programs providing small project grants to NGOs in other parts of the world.

For more information, and for application guidelines, and addresses of local Advisory Committees, please contact ECOLOGIA's Baltic Programs Office in Vilnius.

What Can Be Done With Small Grants? Some Examples of NGO Projects

"Green Wall":
teachers and schoolchildren plant trees and shrubs betweeen their schoolhouse and a busy road, Harjumaa, Estonia $500
Monthly ecological information supplement
published in regional newspaper, Daugavpils, Latvia $100 Dune Action in Talsi Region - Clean-up activities involving school children, club members and volunteers, Latvia $660
"Nature's Tale" Children's Environmental Poster Competition:
In the first year, over 1500 children entered the contest; over 3,000 people visited the final exhibition of award-winning posters; Vilnius Lithuania: $475
Ecotour Along Dubysa River:
water monitoring and campaign to publicize pollution and encourage construction of a waster water treatment plant in Siauliai, Lithuania $647
Ecology Circles:
city children study bioindicators and then do field work in a national park; Tallinn Estonia $518
Sustainable Development
training seminar for Latvian NGO members, Riga Latvia, $500
Oak Forest Planting
in conjunction with teaching about traditional Lithuanian nature religion beliefs, customs and crafts, Vilnius Lithuania, $498
Green Library for Latvia:
books on ecology were taken to small towns outside Riga; lectures and contests for school children were provided in those towns; $410
Returning of the Pond Turtle:
protection of the habitat and public information about the endangered species Emys orbicularis, Kaunas Lithuania $700
Sixty-three projects have been funded by ECOLOGIA's Baltic Mini-Grant Program during its first two years.

Air Pollution and Health: Fine Airborne Dust Particles Linked to Deaths from Cardio-Pulmonary Diseases

A number of recent health studies have shown connections between specific forms of air pollution and human illness and deaths. Across the United States and the United Kingdom, variations in the levels of fine particulates in the air have been correlated with illnesses and deaths from heart failure. It seems that the small particles can lodge in the lungs, irritating cell tissues and prompting the production of blood-clotting chemicals. Hospital admissions for ischemia (heart problems linked to reduced blood flow) and congestive heart failure in Detroit, Michigan increased from between six and eight percent for each 100 microgram per cubic meter increase in the level of small particulates (10 micrometers or less) in the air.

Fine airborne particles are primarily emitted from fuel-burning vehicles. Diesel engines are particular culprits, emitting soot and unburned hydrocarbons. Statistics from London indicate that "diesels installed in buses, lorries and taxis produce 85% of the smoke for which transport is responsible, which is itself 95% of the total - 18,600 tonnes in 1993. Newer designs tend to be cleaner, but many urban vehicles have working lives of 30 years. Ways need to be found to deal with these older vehicles." (The Economist, February 18, 1995 p. 83).

Studies reported in 1995 issues of the American Journal of Epidemiology, the Lancet, and the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine all link specific cardiac illnesses to fine particulate air pollution. In addition, increased levels of other types of air pollution, such as carbon monoxide and sulfate particulates, have also been linked to increases in heart failure and lung diseases.

These findings should strengthen the public demand and political will to require catalytic converters and filters, to produce clearer burning engines, and to reduce or restrict vehicle traffic, particularly in areas of high population density. In addition, those who walk or bicycle now have additional reasons to encourage the enforcement of clean air standards for a variety of pollutants, including the fine particulates.

Sources of information for this article: "Airborne Particles: Smallest are Worst", Acid News 3, June 1995, page 5; "Heart-y Risks from Breathing Fine Dust", Science News Vol. 148, July 1, 1995, page 5; "Air Pollution: The Way to Dusty Death", The Economist, February 18, 1995, pages 82 - 83.

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