‘Today there is no such a concept as a safe, environmentally friendly territory’

Ecologist Yulia Yermolayeva on waste catastrophe

‘Today there is no such a concept as a safe, environmentally friendly territory’
Photo: Maksim Platonov

“Only 7% of citizens in Russia sort out waste. Others agree to do this if there is convenient infrastructure within walking distance, if most of their compatriots do so and if there is an understandable infographic on containers,” notes researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Yulia Yermolayeva in her column written for Realnoe Vremya. The expert talks about fundamental reasons for the waste catastrophe, a “brown economy” and some positive progress in waste management in Russia.

Waste catastrophe

According to the UN, the total amount of waste around the world is 4 billion tonnes a year today. About 70% of all residues are taken to landfills. This leads to a number of systematic changes, which are often negative. Moreover, about 30% of foodstuffs around the world is simply thrown away, this indicator will go up to 45% by 2025. Consequently, the amount of greenhouse gases generated by landfills will grow with time.

One of the major problems on the planet is that most countries don’t have the infrastructure for separate waste collection and recycling. Another problem is that citizens throw out waste uncontrollably. 3,5 billion people in 2017 didn’t have access to basic waste management services, that’s to say, separate waste collection.

One of the clear demonstrations of the waste catastrophe is a huge waste patch in the Pacific Ocean, or plastic soup, occupying from 700,000 to 15 million square metres (it is up to 8% of all Pacific Ocean). And this spot keeps growing, as Southeast Asian countries and other regions close to the Pacific Ocean still throw out waste in the water. Microplastic (plastic that degrades to microparticles) is distributed in the Pacific Ocean and transmitted to humans through a food chain violating its hormonal balance. All non-degradable residues directly influence people’s quality of life and not only accumulate but also influence with some delay.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
One of the major problems on the planet is that most countries don’t have infrastructure for separate waste collection and recycling. Another problem is that citizens throw out waste uncontrollably

Today there is no such a concept as a safe, environmentally friendly territory, that’s to say, more or less polluted territories. Less waste is generated in poor countries, for instance, in Africa with some 0,5 kg of waste per person a day. This indicator in Russia and the USA is about 1 kg, in some European countries it is 2-3 kg a day.

Fundamental reason

We learn about the influence of the chemical industry on human biota and health after tragedies or unscheduled effects (for instance, bisphenol A has a structural similarity with female hormone oestrogen; refrigerants destroy the ozone layer and so on), as tests of products and new chemical substances for toxicity often are very costly.

Give or take, natural resources (minerals, oil products, metals) turn into things that become only bigger depending on the population’s needs, which grow in itself. The number of things we possess can amount to thousands, though our great-grandparents could do with just a hundred. The pace of consumption, the competition of producers increases. To ensure that people consume more, it is necessary that commodities replace each other faster, as there is “scheduled obsolescence”, that’s to say, a commodity already includes wear and breakdown. Commodities increase packages, while packages almost always increase residues.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
The rationality that envisages a long-term strategy — circular recycling, the priority of value of natural resources and understanding of consumption problems — will allow future generations to live well too

This environmental problem is a big pyramid that has culture of consumption in its foundation: aspiration for abundance, single use simplifying everyday life but proportionally multiplying the environmental load. We should understand that we have a sociobiological instinct to aspire for abundance and accumulation, this is hardwired in all living organisms, especially in humans. This instinct helps improve the quality of life and creates the best conditions for posterity. However, considering the scale of humanity, this instinct is in dissonance with possibilities of the ecosystem to recover from the number and diversity of coming residues. Rationality founded by this instinct is that pure “brown economy”, it is short-term and provides a really good quality of life, but only for the current generation. But the rationality that envisages a long-term strategy — circular recycling, the priority of value of natural resources and understanding of consumption problems — will allow future generations to live well too.

How is it in Russia?

In the Soviet era, when the country’s economy was focused on itself, we had resources to recycle glass, plastic, different types of metal, though resource production was also a priority. But to make the country self-sufficient, a balance between production and consumption had to be found. However, these sectors stopped being properly supported in the 1990s. There wasn’t a single chain, single standards legally and economically, and private companies began to recycle and dispose of residues (read taking to landfills), and municipalities started to collect waste from citizens. There are neither economic concessions to support green enterprises nor separate waste collection. Waste sites spread for a very long time, moreover, only 4%-10% of our residues are recycled or go to waste incineration plants. The modernisation of the full waste disposal cycle dragged on.

So we didn’t make big progress, though several serious changes still did happen. Burial of minerals to recycle factions of residues are banned by law, though there aren’t a sector of recycling and economic tools yet. Though there was taken a big step forward in Clean Country programme. A base is created in different regions with a full list of enterprises transporting residues, recycling enterprises, environmental audit, their economic feasibility and compliance with environmental norms is also checked. A regional operator has been providing waste management according to a region’s programme on waste disposal and waste capacities on a competition basis since January 2019.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov
Only 7% of citizens sort out waste in Russia today. Others agree to sort out residues if there is convenient infrastructure within walking distance, if most of their compatriots do so and if it is clear how to do it correctly

Separate waste collection is the cornerstone of the green economy, it is what the zero-waste path begins with. Only 7% of citizens sort waste out in Russia today — we established this during a survey in a research project in green metropolises, this data is proved by sociological services’ surveys too.

Others agree to sort residues out if there is convenient infrastructure within walking distance, if most of their compatriots do so and if it is clear how to do it correctly (understandable infographic on containers). As a rule, economic incentives for citizens — return of deposit for giving a used vessel, a reduction in utility bills — work much more effectively, but this doesn’t exclude that it is necessary to show that one’s contribution to separate waste collection reduces the load on the environment, which means, it potentially improves one’s health. If it becomes possible to found such motivation, it will be much easier to handle the waste problem.

By Yulia Yermolayeva