Russian-German Raw Materials Dialogue: Economy and Ecology Tied Together
It was a year ago when the launch of a large-scale waste management reform was announced in Russia. This new system that is currently being built is aimed at increasing recycling rates and eliminating the waste dumps gradually. Many points of the reform take their beginning in German waste management principles. Partly because of it, the issue of recycling has become the hottest topic at the XII Russian-German Raw Materials Dialogue - an annual event organised by St. Petersburg Mining University.
As of now, only 1% of city waste in Germany ends up being buried at landfills, whereas more than 64% of the waste goes into recycling. Germany is, thus, an undoubted leader of the EU when it comes to handling waste management issue. Over the past thirty years, the country has undergone a significant transformation - from 50,000 to 300 landfill sites. It is now expected that in 2022 all of the Germany’s waste will be recycled - into compost, energy, various items and materials.
According to Dr. Andreas Jaron, Head of the Division ’General, Principal and International Matters of Circular Economy, Transboundary Movement of Waste’ at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety ”Germany spends 80 billion euros on this economy sector, 15% of the country labour’s force has been working in this industry. These employment figures roughly correspond to the ones of the automotive industry. However, car manufacturing and waste industry are hardly comparable. People are ready to pay for products, but things are getting different when it comes down to waste. The state should intervene and determine who is going to pay. In our country’s experience, the one who caused waste generation is the one who should bear all the costs related to its disposal".
That said, this formula - ”the one to pay is the one who is responsible for waste production” - is quite ambiguous. At the first stage of the waste management reform in Russia, the Government decided to shift the entire financial burden to the citizens. Waste pick-up and processing fee was started to be counted based on the number of residents registered in the apartment, whereas in the past it had been calculated based on the living area. Apart from that, local waste management operators had to be chosen in each of the Russian Federation subjects; these organisations were given the right to determine tariffs independently. The outcome was the price increase of waste collection and disposal, which varied from 10 to 50% depending on the region, and constantly growing discontent of the locals.
In the opinion of Konstantin Rumyantsev, the Deputy Head of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of the Russian Federation, ”Building a modern waste management industry can not be done as long as we rely only on waste collection and disposal fee. There is a service cost which is to be paid by locals, but we also have to actively involve businesses in the process, we need to promote the Extended Producer Responsibility concept and make it our number one priority. First of all, the term ’secondary resources’ has to be codified by law - unless that is done, the circular economy in the context of waste management industry is something that will remain a mere conversation. We will also have to define regulatory standards for recycling activities and set reasonable rates of environmental levy. Based on these parameters, we will be able to determine how much a particular company gets to pay for the contamination it has caused. This will be followed by a rising interest on the business side to raw material recycling and introduction of separate waste collection on the whole. Whether a manufacturer of goods or packaging producer will end up paying an environmental fee is yet to be decided”.
A similar step to resolve the waste issue was taken in Germany back in 1991. Then the ’Green Dot’ waste collection system was introduced in the country. The basic idea of the Green Dot is that manufacturers are required to take care of the recycling or disposal of any packaging material they sell - they are paying the fee directly related to the cost of recovery and recycling, depending on the material type used and the environmental damage it causes. Though the programme had been originally launched in Germany, it was subsequently adopted in all of the EU countries, which, as an outcome, resulted in the lesser use of paper, glass and metal in manufacturing.
Klaus Töpfer, Member of the Bundestag and former Federal Minister, explains that allowance for secondary use of the product shall be considered as early as the product manufacturing starts, and the cost of recycling should be included in the price of the item. Therefore, it is a consumer who pays the ultimate cost of recovery.
As Alexey Gordeyev, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, noted ”We are building this new industry for us from scratch. Until recently, we did not even realise what a valuable resource waste is: the secondary use of waste disposal facilitates economy development, creates new markets and helps saving the environment. In our country, we have to take into account the credibility gap - people have no trust for the authorities. Cumbersome discussions are currently taking place, as our citizens show mistrust regarding construction of waste recycling and incineration plants, despite that the experience of Western countries shows that waste facilities can operate efficiently in the city area if embedded in the process chain correctly. There are 100 waste plants in Germany, China is building 300 plants now, and only 5 plants are being constructed in Russia. There are hardly any alternatives though – we either accept that waste incineration is a way of its disposal and adopt waste-to-energy concept, or instead we bury waste and, thus, make new dump sites and landfills”.
The landfill area in our country has already exceeded 4 million hectares, which is three times larger than the total area of Montenegro and four times larger than the territory of Cyprus. The experts claim that if no measures are taken, the annual growth of waste dump areas will total 0.4 million hectares. In this case, in 2026 the waste accumulation area will reach 8 million hectares. If these estimates are correct, perhaps the idea of building waste burning and processing plants is not so stupid after all.
Leonid Weisberg, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Research and Engineering Corporation "Mekhanobr-Tekhnika", says that waste management enterprises is not something totally new for our country. The first waste processing plant in Europe was actually built in St. Petersburg, in the 70's. On this facility, mechanical-biological technology was used to decontaminate waste; it was treated aerobically within 48 hours. Waste disinfection - if it had taken place at the landfill - would have lasted for decades. Another plant working on the same technology was built in the 90’s. Unfortunately, they both combined can disinfect only 20% of the waste generated by the city.
As per Leonid Weisberg, ”It would not be correct to declare that we are building the waste industry from scratch. When we speak about circular economy, we have to bear in mind that Russian people knew about rational utilisation of resources - some 60 years ago they had been already collecting scrap metals, waste paper, glassware. No technological and scientific issues prevent our country from succeeding in dealing with this matter, but the political will is required, which will ensure the safety of waste plants we build and provide for the explanatory work, which includes informing Russian citizens of waste management principles, such as waste collection, processing and disinfection policies”.
Waste incineration, of course, is not and should never be the only way to handle waste. If we want to use secondary material resources, we also need to introduce waste sorting. It took from 20 to 25 years for people of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland to get used to sorting. Residents of Spain, France, Italy are still in the middle of the process. The question is how many years it will take for Russian people to embrace the sorting principles.