‘A WIP and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances’

Sociologist, ecologist and environmental campaigner Yulia Yermolayeva about landfills and deadlines for the waste problem in Russia

‘A WIP and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances’
Photo: Maksim Platonov

“Those people who are hostile to waste incineration plants logically offer to develop residues recycling enterprises. But both must be well equipped with different filters because a waste incineration plant and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances, depending on the load and amount of incoming residues. But the waste incineration plant mustn’t be the only technological “medication” because in this case we lose resources that could be join the production cycle,” thinks researcher of the Scientific Research Sociological Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yulia Yermolayeva. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, she explained how landfills influenced the environment, why the construction of a waste incineration plant in Kazan was suspended and how much time it would take to solve the waste problem in Russia.

“All we can do with an already existing landfill now is to pump out methane”

Yulia, how does a landfill influence the environment?

The contribution of residues into greenhouse gases globally is 5-7%. It includes not only carbon dioxide but also methane and wastewater evaporation. Russian landfills (13,900 operating waste disposal sites) emit 1,5 million tonnes of methane and 21,500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year.

Landfill gas consists of about 150 substances, the most toxic of which are hydrogen sulphide and methane, humans can get poisoned. Petrochemists often talk about landfills, they say that landfills have Mendeleyev’s table. Residues can contain harmful coloгr additiveы, pesticides, formaldehyde, arsenic compounds, pharmaceutical chemistry, solvents, heavy metals. Among metals, we should single out mercury and its compounds, lead and its salts, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals that settle down in the soil or end up in the air when a landfill burns and it disrupts the function of all vital systems of the organism: cardiovascular, central nervous, the gastrointestinal tract. Synthetic mineral oils and phenols make the immune system more vulnerable and increase the number of respiratory diseases.

Aromatic hydrocarbons, phenols, ethers, acids, heavy metal oxides pollute the atmosphere — when burning they move as air masses, enter into reactions, fall like precipitation. This changes the acidity of water bodies that become unsuitable for drinking and agricultural needs, the diversity of water organisms decreases there, which violates existing ecosystems and, in the end, will raise an issue of a lack of fresh water.

Dioxins and Benzo[a]pyrene that are emitted when landfills burn irritate respiratory ways and besides carcinogenicity, they have mutagenic activity, even in microscopic amounts. Also, they are very persistent, this is why they accumulate in different components of the biosphere (soil, plants) and get to human organisms three food chains.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
Residues can contain harmful colour additives, pesticides, formaldehyde, arsenic compounds, pharmaceutical chemistry, solvents, heavy metals...

How can millions of tonnes of residues be recycled on already existing landfills?

Ideally, the disposal of the goods that became obsolete should be considered when they are just designed because all we can do with an already existing landfill now is to pump out biogas methane that is formed there. It will be possible to recycle only the layer that still can be sorted out into fractions and that hasn’t begun to degrade.

Once we did informal research about how the homeless worked on landfills. We saw that the upper layer of residues that is just be delivered is sorted out by the homeless and hired migrants. They “sort out” the waste on the spot — they sort out different fractions for further recycling. It is impossible to process lower layers of the landfill that already entered chemical interaction with the environment, they start to degrade with time. There are other cases of how residues are used. Japan solved a problem of both residues and territory at the same time. Huge briquettes were made of the feedstock of recycled residues that were used to build artificial islands. In general I haven’t seen such research and experience in which scientists would deal with an already existing landfill and completely cleared it (though it doesn’t mean such research hasn’t been done).

Organic food residues degrade very rapidly, cardboard and paper in a wet environment become unsuitable for recycling, metal rusts with time, different types of plastic degrade with a big time difference depending on the composition of polymers. Plastic, glass and metals can theoretically be sorted out, but one will have to face a lot of problems, for instance, a risk of methane emission.

Landfills, by the way, lead to public scandals and conflicts around the world, we aren’t the only who have faced such a waste crisis, it has been seen on all the continents. As practice shows, a collision of interests and a possibility of defending environmental rights to a healthy environment can help a faster transition to the necessity to develop the recycling sector.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
Landfills, by the way, lead to public scandals and conflicts around the world, we aren’t the only who have faced such a waste crisis, it has been seen on all the continents

“A waste incineration plant and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances

What do you think of waste incineration plants?

Those people who are hostile to them logically offer to develop residues recycling enterprises. But both must be well equipped with different filters because a waste incineration plant and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances, depending on the load and amount of incoming residues. But the waste incineration plant mustn’t be the only technological “medication” because in this case, we lose resources that could join the production cycle.

Tatarstan has good plants recycling fertilisers and sugars. These plants came together themselves, created eco-friendly industrial parks, exchange feedstock and recycled materials. There are a lot of factories recycling oil residues whose process flow diagrams are worthy of big respect because they use both Russian and international technologies by high environmental standards. There are possibilities of recycling gunpowder, some other fractions.

Should you raise the alarm if you have learnt that a WIP is going to be built near your house? How harmful is this factory for the environment of the district it operates in?

Before protesting against something, one should have a look at a specific plant’s process flow diagram and specific environmental conditions of a site it will be built on. According to norms, any plant must be located a kilometre away from residential territories, but it seems to us it is too close. The experts we surveyed in Green Metropolises project don’t have a single opinion about the feasibility of the construction of waste incineration plants. We had two clear stances: 100% opponents and those who aren’t against but on certain conditions.

Micropollution is the main problem of such plants. For instance, a thousand tonnes is burnt in your plant, and one filter can get rid of 99,9999% of emissions. It seems to be a big number. But it means that we can miss a kilogramme of toxic substances. Of course, thousands of tonnes of residues go to the waste incineration plant, otherwise it is simply unprofitable to build and maintain it. The plant can have polyaromatic hydrocarbons, different benzene compounds, heavy metals, fly ash that starts to settle down and metabolise in the environment in its emissions. But some experts claim that if the combustion temperature is 1,200 degrees, nothing is left, even ash. And then emissions are absolutely safe. Some experts say that we haven’t had research on it. So neither can we claim that there is no harm under a high combustion temperature.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
A waste incineration plant and recycling plant can be comparable in terms of emission of harmful substances, depending on the load and amount of incoming residues

“An alternative isn’t seen at the moment because Kazan is an industry-oriented city”

What can you say about the waste incineration plant near Kazan? Does the city and Tatarstan in general need it?

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find the territorial scheme and technical norms for the construction of the Kazan WIP to say something specific. I see in the news that this plant is considered as an emission-free plant without an ash distribution cycle and cooperation with construction companies that will build it. On the other hand, there is information in the mass media that its combustion temperature is just 850 degrees.

Kazan went through several stages of the conflict when civil activists turned to Tatarstan authorities having drawn up a statement about the environmental unfeasibility of the plant. In the end, the project was suspended. The president of Tatarstan said that if the waste incineration plant didn’t suit people, they can offer something reasonable instead. Such an alternative isn’t seen at the moment because Kazan is an industry-oriented city.

But the discussion hasn’t ended. About 500,000 tonnes of waste is generated on this territory. It isn’t too much, neither is it little. Moreover, it is unknown how much waste will be recycled and sent to this plant.

Do you think that our country will manage to solve the problem of waste catastrophe in the short run?

I wouldn’t hope that it will be possible to solve the waste problem in metropolises with more than 5 million people in the next 10-15 years because separate waste collection hasn’t been arranged yet. It is arranged in regions. It takes much time to organise separate waste collection by residents, inform them about how to sort out residues correctly. If we had separate waste collection arranged within a walking distance, according to our surveys, 90% of people would be ready to do it.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
The president of Tatarstan said that if the waste incineration plant didn’t suit people, they can offer something reasonable instead. Such an alternative isn’t seen at the moment because Kazan is an industry-oriented city

80% of residents in some small cities such as Vladimir, Mytischi or bigger cities — Chelyabinsk, Saransk, Izhevsk, Perm and Novokuznetsk — already have containers for separate waste collection within a walking distance. Both a responsible regional operator and civil activists did a good job — they managed to inform and coordinate the rest of the population, and the residents themselves turned out to be interested in it. These citizens are already motivated to create a clean environment. Of course, it is also important that it is easier to control a city with a smaller population in this respect.

There are alarmists who claim that we “have nothing”. It is wrong. We have enterprises that deal with recycling. It is planned to create 13 eco-friendly technoparks, facilities of chemical enterprises that operate in one chain in big Russian cities where residues of some enterprises meet the production needs of others. Some civil activists, civil movements can establish contact with both a municipality and the population. On a Russian scale, it is the movements, ECA, Greenpeace No.Waste.Anymore, Separate Collection, We’ll Do, Bellona regional organisations promote their ideas of how to combat the waste catastrophe and they often cooperate. Their guidebooks are at times so good that they can be considered as a ready-to-use programme of actions for authorities.

By Matvey Antropov