The Waste of a Nation

Serbia is bringing back the Green Fund – a pot of money to be used solely for environmental protection. Does this mean the government is getting serious about fighting pollution and climate change?

 

The Serbian capital, one of the oldest cities in Europe and the meeting point of two great rivers, the Sava and Danube, is the home of contradiction. It’s landscape is filled with symmetrical brutalist architecture, but glass and color will inevitably pop up amidst the gray. A gateway, between Eastern and Western Europe, it has been destroyed and rebuilt, more than any other city in the world.

 

Once home to one of the oldest European civilizations, the Vinca, whose many artifacts, suggestive to some of alien contact, are housed in one of Europe’s most significant archaeological sites, a few kilometers west of Belgrade. Yet, just a short distance to the north you will also find one of the biggest and dirtiest landfills on the continent, bearing the Vinca name.

 

You won’t find a lot of garbage on the streets of Belgrade, but look into the rivers, or God forbid, under the Gazela bridge, one of most important bridge in the country and part of an international road network across Europe, and you will know where Serbs stash their trash away. There’s no primary selection system in the country, meaning there’s no infrastructure for citizens to separate recyclables from organic garbage. But, people can go to the post office and apply for special bags in which they can separate their recyclables and leave it outside their homes on a particular day at a particular time – and keep their fingers crossed that it will be delivered as promised.

 

“I don’t know why you have to apply at the post office. That was never clear to me. I almost didn’t apply because of it. What does the post office have to do with the environment? But whatever, you apply and then you separate it,” says Mirko Popovic, the project coordinator at the Center for European Integration at the Belgrade Open School.

 

“I don’t know if the right communal service comes and picks it up. I see that the next day the bag is not there, and I really hope that the secondary collectors are the ones who take it because, if it is the public communal service that is taking it, I know it is ending up in Vinca”.

 

It is definitely more work to recycle than not to, and the only people who bother are the minority that want to do it in the first place. The only so-called ‘incentive,’ is a reduction on the monthly bill for garbage collection.

 

“The taking away of garbage costs around 100 dinars (60p). What kind of reduction on a 100 dinars can you get that will motivate you to do this? If they took away the entire cost of the service, it’s still nothing,” says Mr. Popovic.

Other than that, recyclable and organic waste alike end up in one of countless landfills across the country. There are around 120 legal ones, of which only a handful are sanitary, meaning they are very isolated from the environment which protects it from the materials which haven’t degraded yet. On top of this, there are a few thousand illegal landfills, according to unofficial estimates.

 

Otherwise known as ‘wild landfills,’ illegal ones are dangerous because there’s no control. Dangerous waste, such as chemicals from slaughterhouses, gets thrown out on a random strip of land along with all other waste, and can endanger health and the land itself.

 

“[The people who dump this waste] don’t even dig a hole. They just find some vacant land and stuff it all in there,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, the president of the Association of Recyclers of Serbia. “And all around it is farmland, and then the wind blows some of the garbage all over the highway, and it all just flies, bags and trash”.

 

At the same time, the recyclable material is often ruined by rain, sunshine or soiled by other organic waste, and can no longer be reused. At best, it can be resold at a much cheaper price, which is the case with cans.

 

“Cans are resold solely on the value of their aluminum,” says Jelena Kis, the manager of the Riken foundation which promotes recycling of cans in the region. She says that, when a can has come into contact with organic waste, the recycling company can sell it only at “ten times less than it could otherwise because the material is unclean. So in that sense primary selection is crucial, because it’s absurd to sell it at a price ten cheaper.”

 

Another problem is that the state of research makes it near impossible to get accurate information about the state of damage done to the environment. “We don’t have [the data]. The government tendentiously doesn’t keep track of it,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

“That which the local authorities give, I am deeply convinced that that data is wrong. They do not measure it. They can’t measure it. Because, first of all, landfills are in open spaces, where anyone can come around and throw anything in there,” he continues.

 

Furthermore, as part of the country’s plan to join the European Union, the legal framework has been changing radically across all boards for years. These changes are mostly done in compliance with guidelines crafted by the EU, so as to meet their standards for joining.

 

However, a landfill law has been changed recently, and is one of few which are not in compliance with EU rules. A new category has been introduced.

 

“The new law about handling waste, we criticized it severely, the term ‘unsanitary landfill,’ has been introduced. You know what that means?” says Mr. Popovic. “An unsanitary landfill is a landfill which isn’t in compliance with regulations, but which is handled by the public communal company”.

In other words, an unsanitary landfill is an illegal landfill on which materials are dumped by official government garbage collectors. There’s no care for the environment or public health being given, and yet it is allowed.

 

“And in that way, in my opinion,” Popovic continues, “the state of things has been accepted. Lawlessness has been legalized. That is what the government does. In this way it puts lawlessness into the legal framework”.

 

He goes on to compare the new law to legalizing theft. “Say you stole a car,” he explains, “[and then the police officer tells you] ‘treat yourself a little to that car and we will say you are the ‘unlawful holder of other people’s property.’ And then you have three years to use that car, do with it what you will, and nothing happens”.

 

However, the recycling industry in Serbia has a lot to offer. It is the only industry to have grown during the 2008 crisis. By EU estimates, it is capable of creating up to 40,000 jobs. This is because the factories are less automated than those elsewhere in Europe, and require more manual labor. It has already provided a number of jobs, especially to people from marginalized groups.

 

“They include people with little education, who can’t find a better job in the 21st century, or from the Roma community, or those with special needs, or for example veterans. There’s a whole army of people who can find a job in the recycling industry,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic.

However, the work of secondary collectors, meaning those who manually pick out recyclable materials from bins across the country to sell to recycling companies, is a legal gray area.

 

“The law says that the waste belongs to the citizen, up to the moment he throws it away,” says Osman Balic, the president of the Yurom Center which promotes the inclusion of the Roma community in Serbian society. “[When the citizen throws it away] since the garbage can is the property of the community, the owner of the waste then becomes the municipality. When a Roma citizen comes, a child, takes it out, they are stealing municipality property. But otherwise that waste would just stay there until it stank, but this guy took it that day and took it away for recycling, sells it, and earns from it”.

 

Almost all waste is collected by members of the Roma community. Known as the “city’s worker bees,” they individually collect, on average, between 150-200kg of waste a day according to studies done by the Yurom Center.

 

They do this with their bare hands, and often with the help of their children. Seeing them around the city, digging into garbage disposal sites, is so common most people no longer notice.

 

“Those are people who’s contribution to the protection of the environment is huge, immeasurable,” says Mr. Balic.

 

For this work, however, they don’t have pensions or health care, annual vacations, or any other of the benefits a worker recognized by law would have. They work when it’s scorching hot and freezing cold, and earn just enough to scrape by. To change this would mean to legalize their work fully.

 

Furthermore, another opportunity presents itself. Serbia’s neighbors are relatively small. Considering the recycling capacity Serbia has already installed, countries like Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia could, according to Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, export waste here and recycle it, at a price.

 

She argues that because they’re small, they don’t generate enough waste for it to be profitable to build their own recycling capacities, which are quite expensive. Instead, they could export their trash to Serbia, which already has the infrastructure, and pay for the service.

 

“But that’s another thing for which the prime minister, and that of Montenegro, and Bosnia, have to sit down and make a deal. This isn’t impossible. On the contrary, it’s a very smart solution,” she says.

 

However, things may not be as simple as that. According to Rijad Tikvesa, the president of the Bosnian organization EKOTIM (the association for the protection of the environment, nature and health), sending Bosnian trash to Serbia is not a realistic solution.

 

“When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and recycling in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s true, very little waste gets recycled. But there’s different reasons for that”, he says.

 

In Bosnia, there still isn’t a developed legal framework for recycling, as well as a lack of technical infrastructure and will to recycle from the side of the people. However, sending it off to another country may be more complicated still.

 

“As far as this idea goes, to send it off to Serbia just because there the infrastructure is already there, shows that that’s not a serious approach, because in some cases, the cost of transport alone is more than the cost of entire process of recycling”, he adds.

 

However, despite the great recycling potential the country has thanks to the high capacities that already exist, the rate of recycling has been somewhat stable since 2009, hovering at around

 

“Eurostat qualifies us as 0% recycling, but that’s not true,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, of the Association of Recycles of Serbia. “By our data, we recycle between 10 and 12% of waste. We have really good capacities but they aren’t used to full capacity”.

 

The problem is that the recycling business can’t sustain itself. The end product seldom pays for the process, meaning factories need the money that should be collected by the so called Ecological Tax (Eco Tax), which is imposed on polluters as an extra cost to be paid to the government for their damage to the environment.

“That reimbursement is calculated in two ways, of which the first is completely wrong and the other isn’t applied,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

The first way he is referring to is for polluters to pay according to size of property. This means two businesses of equal size will pay the same amount of ecological tax, regardless of their actual impact on the environment. There is a vast difference in the damage done by, for example, a hair salon and a plastic bag store, according to Mirko Popovic.

 

The second method is that, in accordance with EU legislation which Serbia has adopted, the polluter pays. Money gained from this Eco Tax should go to, among other things, helping the recycling industry conduct business.

 

However, in Serbia there tends to be a huge space between what is legal on paper and what is enforced in practice. The Eco Tax is not enforced, and those who don’t pay it aren’t penalized. Furthermore, the law no longer sees this revenue as specifically collected for this one purpose.

 

“What does this mean?” explains Mirko Popovic. “When a certain revenue is defined as ‘designated,’ it can be used exclusively for that one purpose. So, if that is the revenue for the protection of the environment, then that revenue can only be used for the protection of the environment. By taking out that ‘designated,’ characteristic, the revenue collected for the protection of the environment become part of the entire budget of the local authorities and they can choose to do with that whatever they’d like”.

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic adds: “I am extremely against the money being used for pay and pensions, that the green money is being used for other purposes. To me, that is unconstitutional. To me that is criminal. To me that is the undesignated use of designated money. Put simply, it’s a kind of theft and abuse”.

 

A lot of collected waste is exported and sold in other countries for recycling. This is done by the secondary waste collectors and brings Serbia a lot of profit each year. However, this means that local factories often don’t have enough raw materials.

 

Furthermore, considering how unstable support from the government is, it is difficult to give adequate assurances to investors and practice predictable business management. The government is often late in its, at times insufficient, payments to the recyclers that they should be receiving from the Eco Tax. This forces factory owners into taking bank credits which they can’t always repay. Even when they can, a lot of their resources get wasted on things like interest and currency conversion, adding another challenge to conducting business.

 

“If we had regular financing, then that percentage [10% of waste recycled] could in a few years grow really quickly to some 35%,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic. “Those are some estimates, if it were an ideal situation, we could in some 5-6 years reach 50%, which is the EU average. Because we have the infrastructure. And the factories that exist now could invest in expanding, and then others would become interested in investing.

 

Because, you know what’s the problem, the recycling companies started working in 2009 and then [the government] cut their wings. It’s like if you have a kid who just learned to walk and you leave him on the street”.

 

What Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic is referring to is that in 2012 the Green Fund, a special pot of money to be used solely for green purposes, was absolved.

 

“Again, because of political reasons,” explains Mrs. Petrovic-Vukicevic. “There were some alleged abuses with the money. After all of that, no one was processed or prosecuted, but the fund was cut. I really resented the minister, at the time Zorana Mihajlovic, for cutting the fund. She could have changed it, restructured it, changed some member statutes, to prevent abuse, but not end the institution”.

 

She continues to say that Mladjan Djinkic, at the time the Minister of Finance and Economy, is a smart financier who saw that there was a lot of money there (£45mil), and that then “that was lost somewhere in the budget”. In other words, it was re-purposed.

 

This year, however, the Ministry has announced the re-introduction of the Green Fund. Could this mean the government is getting serious about funding environmental protection?

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic is not convinced. “Let me tell you. This year, after three years, with changes and additions to the law, in February the Green Fund has returned, and that in, shall we say, a declarative way. It will begin in January 2017, but this Green Fund isn’t a fund in the classical meaning of the word.”

 

She explains that the new Green Fund, rather than being that, is actually a “budget line”. “It’s an item in the budget which is called the Green Fund, so the administration has filled out some form that the EU expected from them in the process of joining, and so we now have a Green Fund, but in an actual operative sense, we haven’t solved our problem”.

 

The problem is that, rather than having a reliable pot of money that comes from the Eco Tax, the minister has to, on a yearly basis, decide how much money to give for ecological purposes.

 

This will mean constant negotiating and lobbying, rather than having a set, dependable source of resources. As Mrs. Petrovic-Vukicevic points out, this year, the recycling companies received 22% less from the government than what the industry predicted they would need to conduct business, without even a guarantee that that money will be paid out in the first place.

 

There is little question that, if it weren’t for European Union’s expectations, there wouldn’t even be any strategy for the protection of the environment in Serbia. Still, one third of all the changes Serbia must make as part of its EU accession are part of Chapter 27, related to ecology. It would stand to reason that this is of high priority to the government.

 

However, despite the demands on paper, there doesn’t seem to be much pressure from the EU in practice to take Chapter 27 that seriously.

 

“The environment is not a priority to the European Commission,”says Mirko Popovic. “The environment is not a priority to the government of the Republic of Serbia, and the environment won’t be the thing that will decide on the scale whether Serbia gets into Europe or not”.

 

Candidates don’t have to meet every demand by the EU before becoming members. Joining is dependent on many different factors, and some issues get precedence over others. In Serbia’s case, those are currently Chapters 23 and 24, to do with rule of law. They are particularly significant because of accusations the government protects individuals accused of war crimes from the 90s conflicts, as well as the issue of Kosovo’s independence. Still, entering without complying wouldn’t be without consequences.

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic seems a bit frustrated, and has something she’d like to say to the country’s officials.

 

“People, where are you running to into Europe, but the key thing, the environment, you’re not solving!”

“The colleagues that we work with in Croatia, they’re always telling us that it’s better we hold off on the EU a couple years than that we go in unprepared, because now they’re paying huge fines,” she continues.

 

Greece alone has paid around 20 million euros in penalties for not meeting EU standards regarding treatment of waste, due to their many landfills. Getting plunged into European Union expectations without the ability to cope could prove to make things more difficult for Serbia.

 

“What I’ve noticed, through unofficial contact with the representatives of the ministry and with, again, unofficial contact with our partners in the European Union with the European Commission, is that they are aware of the mistakes they made with the accession of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia.. That they are ready and understand that Serbia needs a lot of time, and it seems to me that within the European Commission there’s the tendency to not make the same mistake again,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

He continues to point out that “on the other hand, you know that the decision whether Serbia becomes a member state isn’t made by the European Commission but by the member states. So there is a danger that that by political decree we become a member without meeting these standards. Without solving the problem of rule of law, without solving the problem of transparency in finance which is, again, a problem of rule of law, we will never be capable of solving the problem of the environment. If they give us 500 years, we won’t do it”.

 

Ultimately, it all comes down to a lack of political will. “Serbia doesn’t function in line with the principle of sustainable development,” he says.

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