Smoldering Mounds of Trash Obstruct Ukraine’s Road to Recovery

  • Official inertia helps illegal dumps proliferate countrywide
  • Veolia among operators constrained by illicit waste collection

The gray glacier of refuse across the field from Natalia Kryshtalyuk’s home reveals a mounting obstacle to Ukraine’s development: the country torn by war is also drowning in its own waste.

The site near Kryshtalyuk’s duplex in the outskirts of Lviv is one of about 36,000 legal and illegal dumps whose combined contents would cover all of occupied Crimea and the disputed eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk if laid out in a continuous blanket. As if Ukraine doesn’t have enough to fret about with attacks from pro-Russian rebels in the east and western donors’ frustration with economic incompetence, the former Soviet republic is losing the struggle against trash.

Garbage dump in Ukraine.

Photographer: Oleksandr Khomenko/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Authorities are loathe to raise bills for collection and cities are slow to promote recycling and can’t invest the billions of dollars needed to build incineration and other modern facilities. While environmental disasters are hardly new in the nation that suffered the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, the risks are accumulating with each plastic bottle thrown on the pile and service providers such as Veolia Environment SA are losing out on potential business.

“Almost all dumps in Ukraine are utilized beyond their term,” said Serhiy Volkov, senior program manager for energy, environment and sustainable development at the United Nations Development Programme. “Something may happen in any of them at any time.”

Recycling Shortage

From Kryshtalyuk’s lime green two-story house in western Ukraine, the pastoral expanse of farmland, fallow fields and copses stretches picturesquely to the north -- where it’s stopped abruptly by the over 33-hectare landfill, first started in 1960 by the Soviets.

“Nothing has been done, people have been cheated and told that a recultivation was underway," the 29-year-old pharmacist lamented as she wheeled her sleeping 18-month-old daughter along the freshly tarred road that separates the neighborhood from the fields.

The facility was supposed to be closed after a fire spread noxious fumes for weeks last year. But residents of this posh new enclave, who were led to believe the dump would be liquidated soon after they moved in six years ago, say trash keeps piling up.

The country, which sits on some of the continent’s most fertile lands, sends 95 percent of its solid waste to landfills. That’s compared with 45 percent in the neighboring European Union, according to Eurostat. Only 4 percent of total Ukrainian waste is sorted for re-cycling, compared with an average 39 percent in the 28-member EU.

Disaster Risk

The risk of environmental disaster is growing, such as a repeat of the massive fire that burned for weeks in May 2016 atop the Lviv site. Four rescue workers died after being buried under 20 tons of waste.

Ukrainians pay only the equivalent of 26 cents to 37 cents a month for trash pickup, putting the monthly bill for a family of four in an apartment at just over $1, not nearly enough to cover operating costs.

Even taking into account that Ukrainians are among the poorest per capita in Europe, trash collection bills, which are set by the state, are far lower than economically expedient, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Illegal Collection

The government, struggling to stay in power and weighed down by institutional corruption, is not able to raise the taxes needed to finance infrastructure projects to reduce the size of landfills and bring in modern technology, said Vasily Astrov, a senior economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, or WiiW.

“The state has a fundamental problem with taxing people, taxing businesses,” said Astrov, “because there is too much of a shadow economy and there is too much willingness to evade taxes.”

With little incentive to pay for waste disposal, western waste management companies working in Ukraine find it difficult to remain in business there.

Veolia, after two decades in Ukraine, is trying to scratch out a profit in the face of rampant illegal collection and disposal and a lack of revenue.

About 80 percent of all waste processing is done “in the shadow,” said Korolyuk, as homeless people collect waste directly off streets or from landfills and get paid in cash, whereas illegally operating collector companies toss the waste into unofficial heaps.

Jacket Stuffing

Domestic companies are also affected. In a converted farmstead on the outskirts of Lviv, where dozens of gigantic bales of squashed plastic bottles stand in a dusty lot, Yuriy Iskiv directs GalPET. The company buys plastic bottles and turns them into pellets to make jacket stuffing, plastic vials and other products.

The discarded soft-drink and water bottles get shoveled into a greasy hole by two men in overalls and led up an ancient belt to a noisy machine that crunches, shreds and melts them. GalPET processes as much as 200 tons of plastic bottles a month, but that is only about a third of what it could process if recycling was more widespread.

“There is a catastrophic shortage of used plastic bottles because it’s not extracted from waste,” Iskiv said.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy said the city is looking to start construction of a waste management facility this year using 75 million euros ($80 million) in financing from the European Investment Bank. The money will also be used to clean up the existing site through “recultivation,” he said.

The projects needs approval from the Regional Development Ministry.

“They’re not really burning with desire to help,” he said. “So we are looking for investors.”

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