Sofia Grapples with a Garbage Crisis

Mounds of waste in temporary dumps around the Bulgarian capital are hindering the citizenry's confidence in government

Sofia was an aromatic place in the summer of 2005. Trash cans overflowed with rotten fruit, spoiled eggs, and other garbage.

"Pyramids of smelly waste rotting in the sun marked the spots where garbage cans should have been on the street, especially in front of cafes and restaurants. Pedestrians had to jump over disgusting trash bags scattered on the sidewalks, meanwhile either cursing the city government or holding their noses," recalled Maria Ignatova, a bartender at a restaurant in downtown Sofia.

While it's no longer in the street, Sofia's waste is still looking for a permanent home. Thousands of leaking bales of garbage, at 800 to 1,300 kilograms each, lie in three corners of Sofia. But these temporary dump sites will run out of space at the end of this month, when the city will begin paying a premium to ship it to smaller towns.

Meanwhile, plans for a waste sorting and recycling plant remain just good intentions.

The trash mountains have turned into a pungent symbol of the city's failure to rise above political score-keeping and solve a persistent problem, and they have helped to undermine some residents' confidence in their local government.

FED UPThe garbage odyssey started in 2003 when then-mayor Stefan Sofiyanski promised to close the only legal landfill, without having an alternative ready to go. The capital's waste had been dumped there for decades, but its neighbors in the nearby Suhodol neighborhood complained of the stench and an increasing incidence of allergies in their children.

The dump did not close, however, and Sofiyanski's promises only made the residents angrier. In protest, they blocked the road to the dump twice, once in January 2005 and again in June 2005. During the second protest, this city of 1.7 million people, and its trash, stunk in the midsummer heat for more than a week.

Although the city was filling up with garbage, most residents supported the Suhodol activists and laid the blame on the city administration.

As a way out of the garbage crisis, parliament passed a law allowing the trash to be dumped in temporary sites on the outskirts of the city without need for an environmental impact statement. Three spots were drafted into service in October 2005. For more than a year Sofia's waste has been packed into white bales, stacked in giant piles, and sent to sit on the edge of town.

Although Sofiyanski left the mayor's office in November 2005, he still gets the blame for the garbage crisis, which suits the city council and the Environment Ministry. "I don't feel responsible for today's garbage situation," Sofiyanski said. "The solution is in building a recycling plant, and if I could have, I would have built it. Ten years ago the three sites my administration suggested were rejected. We did not get support from the different ministries and we had no financing from EU funds," Sofiyanski said.

In September 2006 the new mayor, Boyko Borisov, tried to persuade Suhodol residents to let the garbage trucks back in until a recycling plant could be built near the site. The Suhodol dump has enough capacity for two more years. Borisov offered to exempt the locals from the city's garbage tax, to invest a percentage of the plant's income into neighborhood improvements, to send 30 residents to a European city to observe the work of a recycling plant, and to reserve 70 percent of the jobs at the future plant for nearby residents.

Suhodol residents, their trust in the government gone, vetoed the plan.

Grigor Georgiev, 63, stood in his front yard recently watering his vegetable garden, a kilometer from the Suhodol dump. "We won't let a landfill or a plant in our neighborhood," he said. "The plant would be just as ecologically dangerous as the landfill. Even closed, it bombards us with a horrible stench and poison gases. I'm worried about them," he added, nodding toward one of his three grandchildren playing nearby. "Most of the children here suffer from allergies or asthma."

SOLUTIONS ELSEWHEREAfter being rebuffed by Suhodol residents, Borisov unsuccessfully sought help from the national government.

Borisov is a popular politician and could pose a threat to the current government in local elections this year and general elections in 2009. Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev rejected Borisov's requests. In response, Borisov promised to dump the garbage between the presidential offices and the prime minister's offices, which sit across from each other in downtown Sofia.

But then Stanishev intervened, persuading the towns of Plovdiv and Karlovo, 150 kilometers from Sofia, to accept the capital's garbage for 30 million euros. The mayor of Karlovo, Emil Kabaivanov, said the town's landfill has enough capacity for 45 more years. He warned, however, "The Sofia garbage issue has been exploited, and we have to let our citizens know that we won't drown the town in the capital's waste."

Shocked at the price tag Sofia was paying to dump the garbage, Sofia's vice mayor for ecology, Milor Mihailov, quit. He called the garbage crisis a crisis in people's trust in authority. "The previous mayor, Sofiyanski, lied to Suhodol residents that he would close the dump. He disappointed them, and since then they don't believe any representative of the local government," Mihailov said.

At the same time the city council authorized Borisov to work with officials from the JASPERS (Joint Assistance to Support Projects in the European Regions) program, which brings together the European Investment Bank, the European Commission, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to choose the technology and a firm to build the plant, and to prepare the contract.

The city hopes the plant will take all of its waste. Recyclables will be separated out and the rest will most likely be burnt or composted.

But it will take time. According to an analysis done by the weekly Capital, it would take five years from the time a decision was made to build a plant to the turning of the first sod. Construction would take another two years, so that Sofia could eventually have had its plant by 2013 - if a decision had been made in 2006.

In the meantime, 80,000 bales of garbage will soon head to Karlovo, and Sofia will try to open a new dumping ground near the city to store the new bales to be packed in the coming months.

The cheapest solution would be to reopen the Suhodol dump. At a January city council meeting, the new vice mayor for ecology, Maria Boyadjiyska, said she planned to do so, but she refused to say how she would persuade the Suhodol residents not to block the access road.

So far, the city seems to be just keeping its head above the garbage while the administration settles on funding, technology, and a site for a plant. The new facility will help solve the disposal problem, but it won't take away the lingering odor of political finger-pointing that brought the city to its sorry state two summers ago.