Why a garbage crisis has struck Russia and what has been the role of the new waste management reform, why the Soviet system of waste collection and recycling collapsed and how residents of Arkhangelsk and other Russian regions are fighting for their environmental rights—this and more in an interview with lawyer Pavel Moiseev, Head of the Legal Department at the Bellona Environmental Rights Centre.
On 1 January 2019, a new “trash reform” took effect in Russia. What are its main provisions? How will they change the country’s waste management system?
The law initiating the so-called “trash reform” was passed in 2017, and all of its provisions took effect on 1 January 2019. The removal of municipal solid waste (MSW) which used to be part of housing maintenance services is now operated under community services. Each region must select its MSW management operators, i.e. legal entities responsible for garbage disposal from pickup to landfill. Only one MSW operator is allowed per territory, which means that Russia’s market for garbage collection and handling is now effectively monopolised.
After January 2019, each of Russia’s federal subjects is required to establish local waste accumulation standards for housing properties and other categories of consumers. Based on these standards, the regional authorities should then approve either a single waste collection tariff or several tariffs for different types of related services which can be charged by the regional operator.
This spring, it was reported that a number of regional trash collection companies were on the verge of bankruptcy due to unpaid bills and the trash reform was failing. Which parts of the law are flawed and need to be amended?
The trash reform as it is now must be abandoned, not amended, and steps must be taken to eliminate the monopoly and create a competitive environment for garbage collection and handling services, to encourage waste sorting and to support the development of waste processing enterprises.
But in terms of improving the existing situation, an absolute priority is to establish clear and fair rules for tariff calculation. Today, some regions establish garbage collection fees based on the number of household members, some others proceed from the total housing area, while still others have simply raised the tariffs they had previously. Instead, tariffs should encourage waste sorting, which means that no fees should be charged on sorted and separately collected waste. Likewise, it makes sense to raise tariffs for collecting unsorted waste based on its actual quantity.
Second, the monopolist regional operators should be monitored, and procedures should be established whereby one could appeal against the established tariffs and against the results of tenders awarded to waste management operators. At the moment, there are no clear legal provisions or any consistent judicial practice on these issues.
Third, regions are legally entitled to make their own waste sorting rules but few have done so. In addition to this, each region can specify certain goals in their waste management schemes, such as no disposal of MSW at landfills, no waste incineration, promotion of waste recycling, and reduction of waste generation. If these goals are spelled out in an official policy document, the regional operator will be more inclined to set up a waste sorting system.
In some regions (e.g. in Tyumen), opponents of the trash reform sued the government, claiming that the waste accumulation standards were too high and the territorial waste management schemes were inconsistent with the law. How are such cases handled by courts? What judgments have been issued?
Jurisprudence in such cases has been inconsistent across regions. In Tyumen, e.g., the court turned down the reform opponents’ requests. In contrast, a court in Altai Region declared invalid the Altai Regional Administration’s decisions concerning the regulation of MSW disposal fees and tariffs.
Residents of Poletayevo, a village in Chelyabinsk Region, went to court to challenge the territorial MSW flow scheme. The villagers had expected that a landfill near Poletayevo would only accept garbage from a few nearby communities but found instead that waste from the city of Chelyabinsk would be dumped in the landfill as well. The villagers’ concern was that the landfill was located in the Miass River’s catchment area upstream of the Shershnevskoe Reservoir, the only local source of water supply. The territorial scheme allowed using the landfill to dump the amount of waste which exceeded the landfill’s design capacity. The court satisfied the villagers’ appeal and declared the scheme invalid.
The Soviet Union used to have a well-developed infrastructure for recyclable waste collection and processing. As of today, Russia has accumulated more than 38 billion tons of industrial and household waste, of which just 4%-5% or less get recycled. Why did the Soviet waste recycling system collapse and priority was given to waste incineration and burial?
In the Soviet Union, the situation was rather complicated. On the one hand, there was indeed a positive practice of separate waste collection. But on the other hand, there were systemic problems subsequently inherited by today’s Russia. In fact, the construction of landfills and waste incineration plants was a priority in Soviet times as well. Unfortunately, this trend persisted, but the state-driven recycling system was abandoned with the advent of market economy. We should also remember that in Soviet times, people did not have access to as many plastic and disposable products as we do now, and these products form the bulk of MSW.
The Soviet government allocated funds specifically for promoting recyclable waste collection by the public. For example, the Committee on Broadcasting and Television and the Committee on Cinematography were required to use radio, film and television to promote the benefits of waste recycling. Posters, leaflets and other promotional materials were produced to encourage people to bring waste paper, used glass containers and rags to recycling centres and get paid for them at attractive rates. In the 1960s, a three-litre glass jar could be exchanged for 40 kopecks, the price of two loaves of grey bread.
There was a special book publishing programme to encourage waste paper (makulatura) recycling. Between 1974 and 1994, a number of Soviet publishers produced the so-called makulatura book series including historical fiction, adventure, fantasy and others books by foreign as well as Soviet authors which were popular but hard to find at the time. By bringing 10 kilos or more of waste paper to a recycling centre, one was entitled to a coupon which they could then exchange for one of these books.
So the Soviet Union allocated funds both to support the actual waste management operations and to make recycling attractive for the public. But the change of economic model and transition to a market economy caused the old system to break down.
However, one can see from the statistics of the time that the picture was not so optimistic. In 1989, only 1.3% of all MSW was recycled, 2.2% was incinerated, and the remaining 96.5% was disposed in landfills. According to many sources, no reliable and current information is available in principle about the situation with MSW in the country.
The late 1990s developments in Russia led to a sharp increase in the amount and variety of household waste, while the burden of waste management responsibilities shifted to local authorities, including municipalities. Due to greater autonomy of local administrations, it became virtually impossible to set up MSW treatment facilities in an administrative territory other than your own, since nobody wants someone else’s garbage.
The garbage problem has triggered numerous protests in Russia. In particular, the village of Shiyes in Arkhangelsk Region, the site of a new landfill being constructed, has become a symbol of civic resistance. The Russian Constitution specifically stipulates environmental rights, including the right to a favourable environment and reliable information on the state of the environment. Are these rights violated in Arkhangelsk Region and other Russian regions allocated to receive waste from Moscow?
Yes, Russian citizens’ constitutional rights are violated, such as the right to a favourable environment and reliable information about it, but these are not the greatest violations. Even more important is that the authorities refuse to take people’s opinions into account in making decisions which affect the interests of local residents. This means that they violate not just the environmental rights but primarily the fundamental political and social rights guaranteed by the Russian Constitution.
Regional authorities refuse to take citizens’ opinions into account in any manner: they do not conduct polls, let alone referendums. The institution of public consultations and public hearings has deteriorated beyond recognition. Public hearings are a mere formality and do not serve to take into account citizens’ views. As for public consultations, they are not conducted at all, and local residents often learn about a development project after all required procedures have been completed and construction has started. At the preparation stage, essential information is withheld from the public.
What can local residents do in such cases to defend their environmental and social rights?
Such problems require a comprehensive response: set up a task force, get media attention, disseminate information using conventional and social media and take legal action (appeal to government ministries and committees, complain to the prosecutor’s office and bring lawsuits). Unfortunately, legal action alone has limited effect and needs to be supported by a public awareness campaign.
To solve the problem you should demand that the authorities hold a referendum and disclose all relevant information so that citizens can make an informed choice. Before the referendum, public consultations and public hearings must be conducted—not as a mere formality but in accordance with the law.
Interview: Tatiana Kondratenko