Eyes On Barents

Cleaner outside, cleaner inside

April 17, 2019
How the Finnish waste management approach can help neighbours from Russia.
 
 
Text and photo: Gleb Yarovoy, Moritz Albrecht, UEF
Layout: Anna Yarovaya
 
 
From January 1, 2019, Russia should become cleaner. On the first day of the new year, amendments to the law “On Production and Consumption Waste” came into force. The “garbage reform” was conceived in order to rid the country of overfilled landfills and streamline the processing and disposal of garbage. Some regions were not ready for change and announced a moratorium on innovations, others managed to prepare regional waste management schemes and designate regional operators, who should be responsible for their implementing. Among the latter was the Republic of Karelia. Its authorities had the opportunity to peek at the answers to many “garbage” questions from their neighbors — the Finnish region of North Karelia, where European waste management standards apply. At the end of 2018, within the framework of the Karelia cross-border cooperation program, several projects were launched at once, which should help organize a system for separate collection of waste in rural areas.
 
The correspondent of the online journal “7x7” Gleb Yarovoy figured out how the Finnish experience in solving garbage problems can be applied in Russia.
 
Moritz Albrecht

How it works in Finland: 
Moritz and a rural garbage truck 

 
The initiator of the cross-border project “WasteLess Karelias” Moritz Albrecht is German. He moved to Finland more than ten years ago. Moritz works at the University of Eastern Finland and lives in his own house in the central city of the North Karelia region of Joensuu, which is 70 km from the border with Russian Karelia (as the Republic of Karelia is called in Finland). He believes that he has already completely “finnished”, but continues to approach the issues with German scruples. For example, separate collection and recycling of garbage. 
 

My container for unsorted trash of 240 liters stands in the courtyard of the house. It is taken out by the garbage company every two months. The contract does not allow to take it out less often. Someone does it once a month or even once a week. But it’s obvious: the less often a garbage truck arrives, the less you pay for it. Recently, our third child was born, and, probably, there will be more garbage, we will have to take it out more often. But we still try to produce waste to a minimum. For example, we do not use disposable diapers, instead we use napkins. 

- Moritz Albrecht, the initiator of the cross-border project “WasteLess Karelias”

 

Photos: 7x7-journal

 

The secret to saving on waste is simple: the more waste you sort and take to the so-called “eco-point” (in Finnish, Ekopiste), a specially equipped sorting station for separate waste collection, the less you pay the municipal operator company for garbage collection from your house. There are containers for separate collection of metal, cardboard, paper and glass. In the same place, it is most often possible to give plastic and even textiles for recycling. However, the system of collection and processing of plastic and packaging are not the responsibility of municipal waste operators, but the national operator RINKI

This commercial by form (it has a status similar to that of a Russian LLC), but in fact a non-profit organization was established by several Finnish industrialists and retailers in 1997. According to the law, they are responsible for collecting and recycling packaging, primarily plastic, which they supply to the market. But for the consumer it is not important, what is important is that plastic, like other types of sorted garbage, can be taken to the “eco-point” for free. 

Some potential “waste” is subject to deposit system: for almost all bottle bought in a store or a can with a drink in any store, you can get from 10 to 40 eurocents. However, this “profit” is very conditional, because the cost of packaging is added to the value of the product when it is purchased. So, throwing a jar or bottle, the buyer loses money. Therefore, in Finland there are no cans or bottles, even in a garbage can, and even more so — on the street. The proportion of reuse or recycling of bottles and aluminum cans in Finland is close to 100%. 
 
Machine for receiving user packaging, batteries, mercury waste in the hypermarket of Joensuu. Photo: 7x7-journal

 

It is even easier for residents of apartment buildings to sort out the garbage. The municipality or the management company takes care of containers in the yard for unsorted waste, the so-called “energy” waste (waste incineration companies in Finland work on the principle of waste-to-energy — generating electricity or heat from waste) and for separate collection waste. Until recently, there were almost no separate plastic containers in the courtyards of apartment buildings, but a couple of years ago, utilities began to install them, and gradually they would appear everywhere. 

The fee for garbage collection for tenants of apartment buildings is included either in the rental price or in the membership fee for participation in the homeowners’ associations, which is necessarily created for any apartment building. Of course, saving is a little more difficult, because each family is sorting in its own way: someone pays more attention to this, someone less. 

 
Eco-point — station for separate waste collection in the city of Joensuu. Photo: 7x7-journal

 

The German Moritz Albrecht, for whom garbage sorting is part of the philosophy of life, criticizes some neighbors who do not want to waste time on this and are careless: 

“Our family does not claim to be perfect in this matter. But I don’t understand when people are lazy about sorting trash or throwing partially sorted trash into the wrong container. Or they leave their waste near the container, if it is, for example, overfilled, instead of waiting for a garbage truck and then returning with their bag or box. Sometimes you can find aluminum beer cans in a metal container. These, of course, are not the ones that they buy in the Finnish store, but those that the Finns bring from trips to Russia or Estonia. Personally, I take them to the same machine in the store, with the rest of the aluminum, but for free. Because throwing clean aluminium to a container with food cans is not clever.”

Albrecht admits that, ideally, everyone should decide for themselves where there are reasonable boundaries for separate collection and sorting. He believes, for example, that rinsing a plastic yogurt jar and throwing it into plastic waste is better than not washing it and throwing it in garbage for burning. A certain amount of resources is spent on rinsing, for which you also have to pay — for water, its heating, drainage. But it is still better that this packaging is recycled and not burned or end up in a landfill. But, according to Moritz, it is not worth it to wash very dirty, greasy packaging with a soap, because from the soap that falls into the sewer, there may be more harm than benefits of recycled plastic. 

The same situation, according to Moritz Albrecht, is with the waste transportation issues: if the distance to which the garbage is transported is quite large, then the harm from exhaust emissions reduces the sorting value. For Finland, as well as for Russia, this can be a problem, because in both countries settlements are by European standards far from each other. In rural areas, the sorted waste collection system does not work the same way as in cities. This is also because rural settlements in Finland are far from being as compact as in Russia. The farms that are formally part of the same village are often located several kilometers apart. 

In rural areas, there are large distances. I can understand that people do not want to take plastic a hundred kilometers away to be recycled, because it is absurd. In Mekriyarvi, one of the villages participating in our project, there is no collection point for plastic, not even in the nearest town, Ilomantsi. You can’t demand that people take plastic to Joensuu (located about 80 kilometers from Ilomantsi). And other types of waste, such as cardboard, are not always collected. There is something to work on
- Moritz Albrecht
 

Two Karelias — one problem

A garbage truck that collects sorted garbage can not drive through all farms, because the cost of fuel and carbon dioxide emissions will make such a venture meaningless and unprofitable. For this we need some special solutions. They can help to cope with the problem of sorting not only in Finland, but also in the neighboring “Russian” Karelia. So, Moritz decided to apply for a cross-border project called “WasteLess Karelias”. The Russian version does not fully reflect the essence of the Moritz initiative. In the original English name “WasteLess Karelias”, the word “Karelia” is in the plural. It is important for understanding that in both Karelias — both “Russian” and “Finnish”, North Karelia — there are similar problems, and there should be similar ways to solve them. 

“When we conceived this project, more than two years ago, we understood that not everything is perfect in Finland, but for Russia, garbage is still a huge problem. And that the Finnish approach to sorting and handling waste may be suitable for Russia. This applies specifically to landfills, which are full in Karelia, and the management of the entire waste management system in rural areas. Of course, in 2016 we did not think that a new law would appear in Russia and that all municipalities would be obliged to follow the new rules. But even without this, it was clear that the problem with garbage should be solved,” Moritz comments on the idea of the project.

Reeta Rönkkö, project partner, agrees with Albrecht that there are still enough problems in Finland and that the specific problems of rural settlements are somewhat similar on both sides of the border. Her organization, the Association for Rural Culture and Education (Maaseudun Sivistysliitto, MSL), has worked in rural areas in Finland and the neighboring Russian Republic of Karelia for many years. According to Reet, the main task of MSL in such projects is “the development of rural areas based on the interests of people and solving problems in such a way that local people themselves determine the most pressing issues, find solutions themselves and put them into practice.” 

In the field of waste management, according to the MLS staff, the Finnish countryside is far from perfect: 

“In fact, people here are not very motivated to separate garbage collection and prefer to throw everything in one package. Not because they do not want to take care of nature, but because the distances to the nearest separate station or eco-points are usually very large. Besides, villagers, especially the older generation, there is a majority of them in the villages, do not always have enough specific knowledge about how and why to sort garbage at home. It also happens (although it is rare) that a villager would prefer to throw his old sofa or refrigerator into the forest rather than take it for recycling,” Rönkkö admits. 

As part of the project, sites will appear in two villages on the Finnish side of the border, where both mixed waste containers and separate waste collection containers will be installed. The idea is simple: you need to economically motivate people to sort waste. 

“On the Finnish side, we understand where to go: in the direction of greater centralization of container sites in rural areas. For example, if at least two or three dozen families agree to carry (not to drive!) their garbage to a common container site, and not to throw garbage into an individual container near the house, then this is a win-win situation for everyone. A garbage truck makes fewer stops and does less harm to the environment, and the family pays less money for garbage collection. Therefore, in our project on the Finnish side, we are trying to move precisely in this direction. On the Russian side, there are clearly more problems. And for the time being it is not completely clear to us how to solve them in each particular case,” says Moritz Albrecht.

For those who agree to abandon individual containers near the house and will carry garbage to the container site, the tariff for garbage collection will be significantly reduced. According to preliminary estimates, at least twice. If today every Finnish household has to pay a fixed fee of 23 euros per year for waste disposal and another 6.5 euros for each arrival of the garbage truck (at least once every two months), then at least 62 euros a year. In fact, despite the smaller amount of waste produced, in rural areas the garbage is removed more often, because few people sort it and the container near the house is filled faster. Therefore, you pay more for garbage collection. For a collective container site, the tariff is fixed, it is 35 euros per year per household. 

MSL already has experience in joint container sites. With their help, such a platform was recently built in the town of Kherajärvi. There, everyone who participates in joint garbage collection, and there are more and more such people, are satisfied. 
 
 
 
 
According to Rönkö, MSL experience in working with villagers, and in general the Finnish experience in the field of waste management, can also be in demand in Karelia. After all, the Finns started thinking about large-scale sorting and processing not so long ago. Until 1994, when the National Waste Act came into force, there was no such problem on the agenda, although some types of waste were somehow recycled: metal since 1924, paper since 1943, glass since 1978, plastic, cardboard and food waste — since 1992, cans and beverage bottles — since 1996. After Finland’s accession to the European Union and the emergence of pan-European legislation, the country lives mainly according to EU rules. 

“It’s important to understand that Finland is far from being a pioneer in the field of separate collection, sorting and recycling of waste,” explains Albrecht. “For a long time Finland was lagging behind in this class. For example, burning trash for energy appeared here only a few years ago. And in my native Germany they began to do it in the late 1980s. And the recycling system was established much earlier (another question is how the famous Grüne Punkt system works and whether it is effective). Moreover, compared to other EU countries, Finland produces quite a lot of waste. And compared with Russia, too.”
 

How it works in Europe: statistics

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

How it does not work in Russia yet: 
from the Moscow region to Shies 

 
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law on “garbage reform” (amendments to the law “On Production and Consumption Waste”) on December 31, 2017. Innovations, the result of which should be the creation of a new waste management system, have been called “technical” by some environmental experts, if not an “imitation of vigorous activity”. However, the algorithm, which allows you to gradually improve the “garbage” situation, is written in the reform plan. However, this can be done only in specific regions and only by creating new rules and structures that will monitor their observance. 

The “rules” in this case is a regional waste management program. By law, such programs — long-term strategies for solving garbage problems — were to appear in every region of the country in 2018. And the new “structure” responsible for implementing the program is the so-called regional operator for the management of municipal waste. The operator must control and distribute all the “garbage” financial flows: collect money from the population for garbage collection and pay subcontractors for transportation and burial or for sorting waste. 
 
Picture by 7x7-journal

 

Ideally, the scheme is similar to the one that is active in Finland: the residents themselves sort the waste produced at home, take it out or take it to the nearest container site, where special containers have been installed — different colors for different types of waste. Then a garbage truck arrives and takes everything to a sorting station, where the garbage is checked, cleaned and pressed, and then sent for processing to specialized enterprises. 

There is nothing difficult in this. Back in the early 1990s, the inhabitants of Russia handed over all the glass bottles to the store, newspapers — to waste paper, iron — to scrap metal, and food waste was put in the trash at the door of the house. However, at that time there was almost no plastic waste, which in recent decades has become one of the main polluters: it is used everywhere and then goes to landfills. There it can be almost forever: different types of plastic decompose from 100 to 500 years. If the plastic gets into the groundwater, and then into the rivers, lakes, seas, the world ocean, it becomes potentially dangerous to human health. 

In recent decades in Russia, garbage has not been sorted and almost not recycled, but brought to the so-called landfills. Over time, this became a real problem: landfills in large cities were overfilled, they began to pollute not only land and water, but also to emit poisonous gas harmful to people’s health. In the Moscow region, this led to mass poisoning of children and caused a wave of protest. As a result, the landfills near Moscow began to be closed, and it was decided to take the garbage thousands of kilometers away to the area of the Shies railway station, to the border of the Arkhangelsk region and the Komi Republic. Since then, the name “Shies” has become a household name not only for the mindless efforts of the authorities to solve the capital’s waste problem, but also a symbol of a new social protest. 

 

 

The situation in Russia is somewhat similar to Finland. According to experts of the Higher School of Economics, the share of municipal waste in the total volume is at the level of 1% (56 million tons in 2015). But this is where the similarities end. HSE researchers found that “of the total waste generated in Russia in a year, one fifth is in the metropolitan area (3.8 million tons — Moscow region, 7.9 million tons — Moscow)”. The volume of processing, more precisely, the garbage that goes to waste sorting and waste-processing complexes, does not reach even 10% (according to HSE, 8.9% in 2016, and this figure reflects only urban garbage, there is no statistics about the rural one). 

There are also no statistics in the regions. For example, the Regional Waste Management Program, approved in Karelia in August 2018, contains only information on the volumes of centralized waste collection in the districts of the republic. It differs significantly: from 31% in Loukhsky district to 100% in Kostomuksha. So, somewhere a garbage truck arrives to everyone, and somewhere only to every third resident. In forty urban and rural settlements “there is no centralized collection system for solid communal waste.” Besides, “country cottage partnerships, garage cooperatives, individual development blocks in urban and rural settlements are practically not covered by the centralized waste collection system”. Where are those who do not have access to a centralized waste collection system? That’s right, at the natural dumps. 

Today in Karelia, 3,359 out of 3,929 container platforms require refurbishment. To these, another 583 sites should be added in those places where they are simply missing. 
 

Together against waste 

In some localities, local residents themselves began to solve the “garbage” problem. For example, at the end of 2018, residents of the Pryazha district center voted to declare the project “Eco-cycle: environmental values and culture of people” to the Republican program of supporting local initiatives. According to the project, all existing container sites along with containers should be replaced in Pryazha. Within the framework of the program, the Government of Karelia offers rural settlements to “chip in” for projects significant for the settlement and is ready to add up to 1 million rubles from budget funds. At the same time, local residents, businessmen and the administration should collect 5% of the project cost. 

From December 2018, the neighboring Karelian village of Vedlozero from the Russian side joint the project “Karelia without garbage”, conceived by Moritz Albrecht. In Vedlozero, Naistenyarvi (Suojärvi District) and Tolvuye (Medvezhiegorsky District), the project team will examine the garbage collection and landfills, how local administrations want to solve existing “garbage” problems, including the problem of separate waste collection, and what locals think about these problems. Seminars will be held for schoolchildren and adults, where everyone will learn about the separate collection and recycling of waste, as well as community work days, garbage collection competitions between schools, and even the Trash-Art Festival. 
 
Natural dump in Vedlozero, Karelia. Photo: 7x7-journal

 

There is a specific infrastructure component in the project: in each village covered by the project, modern container platforms will be built and containers for sorted garbage will be provided. The project coordinator claims that in those Karelian villages where the project works, the problems are obvious, and the local authorities do not hide this. For example, in Vedlozero, the only landfill was overfilled in 2016, when the project was only planned. The administration of the settlement could not get permission for its expansion and was forced to pay fines. But if in Vedlozero there is at least some sort of waste collection system, and there are container sites, in many other places there are none of it. 

 

Eco point in Naistenyarvi. Photo: 7x7-journal

 

There is no centralized system for garbage collection and disposal in Naistenyarvi. There are only a couple of self-made “waste collection points”, where all the village garbage is dumped. A dozer comes to the self-made pit with a certain frequency, rakes garbage and takes it somewhere to the forest. There is no centralized system for the collection and recycling of waste either. 

“We intend to create a universal approach to the waste management system, which can be used in the future by any rural settlements on both sides of the border. We use an interactive approach to project implementation, that is, we will actively involve not only local administrations, but also local residents in project activities. Thanks to this, we hope to find solutions to waste problems that are suitable for improving the situation both in specific localities and in the whole of rural areas,” the project website quotes Moritz Albrecht.

 

 

Another project of cross-border cooperation — “Sustainability under pressure” — already operats in the neighboring villages of Zaonezh, Velikaya guba and Oyatevshchina. It also has funds for the construction of several container sites for separate waste collection. A whole system of modern container platforms will appear along the Medvezhiegorsk-Boyarshchina route now being reconstructed. This will facilitate the work of the company responsible for collecting and transporting waste to sites for recycling or sorting, says Mikhail Romanenko, chief engineer of the regional operator of solid waste, Avtospetstrans LLC. At the meeting in Vedlozero he encouraged the project participants: 

“If within the framework of the projects you build sites and install containers on them for separate collection of waste, of plastic for starters, then the regional operator will be obliged to ensure its removal to the sorting station. Believe me, now everyone monitors the “garbage” issue, and we are controlled not only by the relevant ministries, but also by active citizens who simply will not allow us to act contrary to the law, even if we assume that such ideas may arise.” 

Moritz Albrecht, father of three children, is sure that the key to successful implementation of the project “WasteLess Karelias” will be not only and not so much the involvement in project activities of adult villages and settlements in Russia and Finland, but also work with schools and schoolchildren. In the Finnish school there are subjects related to ecology and environmental protection. There are also lessons on separate waste collection. Albrecht is sure that sorting in Russia should also start with school: 

“Children are very good guides of environmental ideas and motivators for parents. If the children “catch” these ideas, they will in a good sense bother their parents until they, too, start following these ideas. Yes, we should start with children, and we also try to do this in our project. And, by the way, in the program of cross-border cooperation, which finances our project, there are similar projects aimed directly at the development of school environmental education, such as the Green School, and we will definitely cooperate with them in this direction.

Moritz believes that the philosophy of respect for nature and its resources will be close to its neighbors in Russia and Finland. 

 


This story is orignally published by the 7x7-journal and republised by the Barents Observer as part of the project “Eyes On Barents”