Environment, Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Waste in East Going Waste

Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, Mar 30 2010 (IPS) - Environment groups have warned that Eastern Europe is plagued with serious and potentially dangerous waste disposal problems as new figures reveal the region has Europe’s lowest recycling rates.

They say that poor legislation, insufficient infrastructure, lack of environmental awareness outside cities and a shortage of political will to tackle waste management problems has led to serious problems with illegal rubbish dumping. Together with non-existent recycling in some countries, this poses a threat to human health and the environment, they say.

“In rural areas illegal dumping is a serious problem,” Lucian Ionescu, director of the Bucharest branch of the non-profit organisation the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), told IPS. “People are not aware of recycling and waste management – something which dates back to communist times. Illegal dumping poses serious health and environmental risks, while burying certain types of waste in landfill sites has its risks too.”

Figures released by the EU’s statistical agency Eurostat this month showed that Eastern European EU member states lag far behind their Western counterparts on waste management.

While the average EU recycling rate in 2008 for municipal waste was 21 percent, Bulgaria did not recycle any waste at all, Romania just one per cent, the Czech Republic two percent and Lithuania and Slovakia only three percent. In Estonia the rate of recycling decreased by 10 percent on 2007, while landfill increased by 11 percent. In Latvia there was a seven percent fall for recycling and a seven percent rise in landfill use.

In comparison, in Austria 69 percent of municipal waste produced in the country was either recycled or made into compost – up 10 percent on the previous year – while Luxembourg also increased its recycling by 17 percent.

Meanwhile, the EU average for the share of waste that ends up in landfill sites was 40 percent. But in Bulgaria the rate was 100 percent and in Romania 99 percent.

Environmental groups say poorly equipped older sites pose land and groundwater contamination threats, and there are health and environment hazards connected to gas emissions from decaying organic waste at landfill sites.

In Bulgaria, residents near the controversial Suhodol landfill site in Sofia have previously picketed the site in a bid to get it closed down over safety fears. Apart from the smell which they said made it impossible to live close to the site, they claimed there was a serious risk from explosive methane gas – which is also a potent greenhouse gas – at the site as it was released from rotting waste.

The Bulgarian government has recently launched a tender for a new high- tech 117 million euros waste disposal plant just outside Sofia to be completed by 2012. But environmental groups say that governments in the region are not doing anywhere near enough to facilitate and encourage proper waste management.

Ivo Kropacek, director at Friends of the Earth in the Czech Republic, told IPS: “Legislation in Eastern European countries on waste management is poor. For instance, there is a lack of legislation on producer responsibility. Producers of waste, such as firms, need to be forced by legislation to take steps to help manage their waste sustainably, such as using recyclable materials.

“One of the reasons for such low recycling rates in the Czech Republic is that there is little or no separation of bio-waste, that is, kitchen and garden organic waste from other municipal waste. In the West there is more separation and this is why the recycling rates are higher. The government must do more to ensure mandatory separation, and more campaigns are needed to encourage awareness of recycling and what can be done at a household level, such as home composting.”

Facilities for waste collection and subsequent recycling are also hampered by a lack of finance in some parts of the region, particularly rural areas. Financing for recycling is also a problem for some municipalities.

The CEPTA civic association in Slovakia which promotes sustainable ecological practices claims that some municipalities are actually losing money on recycling collections and councils and residents have become “de- motivated and disgusted” about a service which CEPTA says costs more than four times as much as non-separated waste collection.

They add that central government subsidies must be introduced to encourage local authorities to continue and improve recycling schemes and waste separation.

National governments have introduced various environmental laws and, as EU members, Eastern European states are bound to meet standards set out by Brussels on waste management.

The European Commission is keen to increase recycling. But some states are a long way behind on meeting legal norms, such as EU-wide standards for landfill sites and waste management systems, and both Bulgaria and Slovakia are facing legal action from the European Commission over their failings.

“Eastern European governments argue that they must let economies grow and that they cannot just pass laws which might potentially slow that growth. But economies can be grown in a green way, without having to harm the environment. We need politicians to give us better laws,” Kropacek told IPS.

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