Environment

To Compare Russia and Ukraine, Look in the Trash

Russia and Ukraine are drowning in waste, but they have strikingly different approaches to the problem.

Problems piling up.

Photographer: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

There are few better windows into how Russia and Ukraine compare today than garbage collection. Major cities in both countries are having trouble with waste disposal, but the political fallout is markedly different between the two -- one an authoritarian state and the other a messy, corrupt democracy.

The former Soviet Union wasn't concerned with recycling or even burning garbage: When you control one-sixth of the world's dry land, there is plenty of space to bury or simply dump trash. Separating garbage, as it's done in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S. has been half-heartedly tried and abandoned many times because of poor uptake and the impossibility of enforcement.

Ukraine has had a separate collection law since 2013, but it's being ignored. Only 1 percent of the country's garbage is incinerated and a further 4 percent recycled. By contrast, Sweden -- one of the global leaders in garbage treatment -- recycles or burns 99 percent of its household waste. At least 4 percent of Ukraine's territory is reportedly occupied with 6,000 legal and 30,000 illegal dumps, according to the Ukrainian business news portal Delo. 

In Russia, Yuri Trutnev, then-environment minister, said in 2011 that creating dumps was more economically efficient than trying to incinerate or recycle trash. The following year, the country's environmental agency reported that incineration was a better idea than recycling.

Russia is vast, and in many regions, there's still plenty of room for dumps and landfills. But one of Russia's many economic curses is its centralization: Moscow keeps growing uncontrollably. According to the Moscow region's government, which runs the suburbs but not the city itself, the capital's environs now accumulate 20 percent of the country's trash, and the refuse output grows some 2.5 percent a year. The 5 percent of trash that isn't dumped is mostly burned, not recycled. No wonder people living in the capital city's close vicinity are starting, quite literally, to smell that something's wrong.

The stench is similar in Russia and Ukraine; both of them need to invest in waste treatment technology and to clean up the dumps. But political reactions to the miasma present a sharp contrast.

In Ukraine, Andriy Sadovy, the popular mayor of Lviv, the biggest city in the country's staunchly pro-European west, has been waging a garbage war with the central government in Kiev. Since a fire at the city's main dump last year killed three first responders, the city has been forced to stop using the 82-acre site. Sadovy has begged other regions to take Lviv's waste, but hundreds of towns have refused. 

Sadovy has accused the central government in Kiev of running a "garbage blockade" of Lviv as a revenge for his political party's decision to quit the governing coalition in 2016. Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman has denied this, accusing Sadovy of incompetence and politicking. President Petro Poroshenko, Hroisman's political patron, has blamed the mayor for "literally burying Ukraine's most beautiful European city in trash."

As the politicians wrangled, garbage accumulation threatened to become catastrophic. Lviv's economy is tourism-based, and Sadovy has largely managed to keep mountains of refuse from building up in the city's quaint historic center, built under the Habsburgs. But in some residential areas, waste hasn't been collected for weeks, breeding rats and a fear of epidemics.

On Thursday, a temporary solution was reached: Sadovy agreed to pay the surrounding region, run by a Poroshenko appointee, to lease a parcel of land for two years so that waste could be dumped there. Sadovy now promises to run a "zero waste" program in the city and make sure recycling plants are built. Whether he can keep those promises, or whether the waste will bury his rumored chances at the presidency, remains to be seen: Sadovy's resources and power are limited even compared with the cash-starved central government. 

Russia lacks Ukraine's lively political scene. It has President Vladimir Putin instead. During his latest annual call-in show with voters on June 15, he was shown footage of the Moscow region's biggest dump, located right next to a residential area in the town of Balashikha. The residents petitioned the president for the dump's closure, complaining that they regularly felt sick and vomited because of gas eruptions from the mountains of waste. Putin promised to "try to do something."

Such a televised promise never goes to waste. Andrei Vorobyev, the governor of the Moscow region immediately drove to Balashikha and promised to close the dump by 2019. But at a government meeting a week later, Putin remembered his promise. "Listen to me," he said, "and I want Vorobyev to hear me: You have a month to close that dump."

It was closed the following day, and the mayor of Balashikha resigned four days later. In less than a week, the area was cleaned up; the authorities now plan a ski park there. The waste was taken to the region's other dumps, which are also receiving the tons of refuse that Balashikha used to get from Moscow every day. That strains their own capacity; the mayor of Mozhaisk, one of the towns forced to take the garbage, said the local dump would now be full in 18 months. It's a temporary solution, like in Lviv; like the Ukrainian city, the Moscow region also has big waste treatment plans, including the construction of several incineration plants and a separate collection scheme meant to train locals to sort garbage into "dry" and "wet." Anything more sophisticated would be doomed to failure.

Neither Ukraine's chaotic democracy-like system or Russia's autocracy have found a lasting fix to a problem that originates in their shared Communist past. The countries can only achieve permanent change if those who live in them become educated about the value of recycling and alter their ways. It starts with simple things like separate containers for paper, plastic, glass and biological waste. Once those actions are part of life, like in Europe, it'll be clear that progress is being made. But that requires a public information campaign that so far the politicians seem unlikely to wage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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