Separate Waste Collection Is a Bonanza. So Why No Interest?

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An environmental campaign took place in St. Petersburg, during which citizens could hand in their old toothbrushes and used toothpaste tubes for recycling. Several hundred people took part in the campaign, helping to collect some 45 kg of recyclable material. Forpost Press explored the issue to see whether waste sorting is, in fact, environmentally beneficial and find out how much money investors could have back if they decided to get involved in recycling.

As the event's organisers say, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of projects related to the separate collection of waste. After all, in natural conditions, it can take up to several centuries for garbage to disintegrate. For example, it takes 90 years for tin cans to decompose completely. Polyethene – depending on its thickness – can remain buried in the ground or a landfill for over a century. It takes twice as long for a Coke bottle. Items made of rigid plastic – toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes included – take 300 to 500 years to decompose.

Burning them with other junk is not an option either. Low-pressure polyethene, i.e. high-density polymer, produces vast amounts of carcinogens when burnt. It also emits chlorine-containing compounds and other toxic substances that are highly harmful to humans and the environment. Their significant concentrations, amongst other things, increase the likelihood of malignant tumours.

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Therefore the only truly acceptable way to get rid of plastic is to reuse it. The exciting news is that setting up a recycling line can also turn into a lucrative business. For instance, it is common in Germany to make geosynthetics from it, which found use in road construction and repair, to sell it elsewhere. Russia is one of the buyers, as around 60% of composites and textiles that form the base course in domestic highways originate from Germany.

"Indeed, the process of depolymerisation of PET can produce polymers for a wide range of applications. It is possible to make geosynthetics and many other products, such as additives for asphalt-concrete mixtures or rubber coverings for modern playgrounds and sports fields. The cost of one square meter of PET-Flex varies between 400 to 600 roubles. And it takes from 3 to 5 kg of used plastic bottles – that is, 60 to 100 items – to manufacture it", says Elizaveta Kireeva, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Technology and Energy Processing at St. Petersburg Mining University, a regular participant in actions on separate waste collection

One of her scientific interests is plastic recycling, which is, however, pretty underdeveloped in Russia. Hence, applying the results of research currently done at the first higher technical university in Russia, supervised by Professor Natalia Kondrasheva, is not yet possible. Industrial enterprises have little interest in such projects, whilst the Government is not finding administrative leverage to change the situation not on paper but in real life.

Свалка в Мурино
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There are very few containers for plastic waste, and even if there is one in a particular courtyard, empty bottles still end up in the same landfill where other rubbish goes. Therein they get mixed in one big pile with food scraps, batteries, cardboard, and glass.
Sometimes, more appalling stories occur — people spend time searching for separate bins to dump their sorted waste, drive a long way to them, and then watch in amazement as their contents go into a single-tank body of a garbage truck. There is no need to explain how astonished they become when seeing it happening right in front of their eyes.

Of course, such stories demotivate those who genuinely want to do their bit to save the environment. Besides, it undermines the credibility of public authorities that seem unable to get a potentially lucrative sector of the economy under their control. As for plastic, instead of making use of it, turning it into a business opportunity, just as it is abroad, and making it an essential part of the process of import substitution, it continues to pollute nature.

There have been some successes, though, as participants of the Sobirator recycling project note. For example, Colgate accepts toothbrushes for recycling, Ecophon takes in foil and bags, Vicky Vostok takes felt-tip pens and Vtoralyuminproduct metal for recycling. Yet, none of this happens on an industrial scale since there is no sorting system in place.

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"We usually collect a lot of plastic during environmental campaigns, which we then send for recycling. It is truly a matter of great importance. The problem is that these are one-off events, but if we want to change the situation, waste processing should become an industry, like it is in neighbouring Finland, for instance. Sorting wastes should become a people's habit, and private companies need to find their interest in recycling. Technologically speaking, no obstacles exist. Extracting polymers from used plastics is a scientifically sound and cost-effective process. But to make it an industry, goodwill and initiative are crucial, both on the part of the state and business," explains Elizaveta Kireeva

Waste sorting has become a norm in almost all Western countries. There are at least 4, or even 6-7 containers for different types of waste in and around office, administrative and residential buildings. In neighbouring Finland, for example, visitors from Russia often get stares – and not too friendly ones – from the locals as they approach these dustbins. They are sure that Russians will likely mix everything up — throw paper waste into the bin for plastic and glass into the food waste bin. As the Finns see it, it is nearly a criminal offence.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Лаппеенранта, Финляндия
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Верона, Италия

Whether we shall see a similar, sustainable approach to the environment implemented in Russia and whether we succeed in changing our mentality to adopt it is yet unclear. Still, according to an old saying, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". For now, eco-activists help with the recycling of waste voluntarily, in their spare time from studies or work. There is also Dobrye Kryshechki — a project focusing on collecting plastic bottle caps. Its organisers take the caps to a recycling plant – they are from high-density plastic and require separate processing – and with the money earned, they buy wheelchairs for disabled children.

Elizaveta Kireeva is sure that if something helped boost the work on introducing the MSW recycling system in Russia, it was because of volunteering activities.