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.
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