Minsk malaise

Written by: Vladislav Vorotnikov | Published:
Special Report

Belarus, like its ex-Soviet Union bloc neighbours, is struggling to modernise its waste processing industry while landfill sites just get bigger and bigger. The president has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation by announcing the construction of major facilities, but solving the problem will be easier said than done, reports Vladislav Vorotnikov

A large-scale, four-year programme to develop Belarus’s waste processing capacity has failed, with the country still producing much more waste than it can use for the production of secondary materials. Learning from the mistakes of this initiative, the government has now embarked on a new plan, which includes the construction of four waste processing plants near the country’s main cities. However, the issue of appropriate waste sorting remains unresolved.

The lack of progress in the area of waste disposal in Belarus has attracted the attention of the country’s self-perpetuating president Alexander Lukashenko, who recently issued a special order granting state support for the construction of a processing plant near the city of Grodno. According to the deputy minister of housing and communal services, Anatoly Shagun, this is the first of four complexes due to be commissioned over the next five years.

The Grodno complex, which should be launched at the end of 2016 at a cost of US$28.8 million, is expected to be able to handle 120,000 tonnes of waste annually. Shagun says the facility will be built by the China Harbour Engineering Company, partly financed by a loan from the World Bank, and will fully cover the household waste output of Grodno city and several neighbouring districts.

Similar projects are currently planned for the cities of Minsk, Vitebsk and Bobruisk. However, the authorities admit that these projects have yet to attract the required investment.

Taking waste seriously

Lukashenko’s personal announcement on the matter is significant because it indicates that the state is taking Belarus’s waste problem seriously and is prepared to protect the interests of private investors in such projects.

Businesses will also have pricked up their ears at the announcement that the government is developing a waste sorting system that is currently in test mode and will soon be launched in several cities.

Back in 2012, the country’s municipal authorities rolled out separate litter bins for different types of waste. However, this measure turned out to be less than successful, and the idea of introducing fees for waste collection, sorting and further disposal was shied away from – understandable given that the average monthly salary in Belarus was just US$452 at the end of 2014.

Although the situation in Belarus is slightly better than that of other countries in the former Soviet Union bloc, like its neighbours Russia and Ukraine it still suffers from the growing number and size of landfill sites, many of which are illegal. According to official information, Belarus produces about three million tonnes of household waste annually and this figure is growing by 20% per year. At the same time, the country only has the capacity to process 338,700 tonnes annually.

The remaining 2.6 million tonnes (88% of the total) simply goes to landfill. Belarus has several closed waste processing plants, located in different parts of the country, which can potentially process or burn at least one million tonnes of waste per year, but all these complexes are ageing – and their modernisation and further commissioning may cost more than the construction of the new facilities.

Other serious problems exist in Belarus’s waste processing industry.

For example, Tetra Pak packaging is not processed at all because its thermal decomposition requires technology beyond the scope of Belarusian companies.

The country mostly processes pulp and paper, as well as glass waste, while a number of petrochemical enterprises purchase plastic for recycling; however, once more, here the companies cannot process every type of plastic.

A first in Belarus

Meanwhile, a plant in Brest, preliminarily scheduled for launch some time in 2018/19, has been earmarked to produce biogas through the fermentation of organic waste – something of an innovation for Belarus.

However, like the schemes requiring investment in Minsk, Vitebsk and Bobruisk, it is still not clear if this project will actually come to fruition.

Alongside all of this uncertainty and lack of technology, there is consensus that Belarus has a poorly developed legislative base for the waste recycling industry to operate properly. “Despite our repeated demands, the government still has no clear concept of handling waste,” says Mikhail Schastny, chairman of the Belarus Association of Recycling and Innovations.

He adds: “The law on waste management, which is available today, regulates what to do with the waste that has already been created. But there is no such law like, for example, in Germany or other developed countries: the law on a recycling economy, which would

have set priorities at the stage of the manufacture of goods.”

There are currently no targets for waste collection in Belarus, so both companies and operators are dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.

Economic basis required

“There are no standards [or overall] responsibility for waste processing in the country, and this is the main problem,” says Viktor Margelov, chairman of the Belarusian Confederation of Businessmen. “As a result, over the past years we have only had a slight increase in the volume of waste collection. The system is not creating any economic basis for the collection and sorting of waste. The companies which are constructing the plants have to deal with the fact that they cannot operate at full capacity. There is a lot of raw material, but nobody collects it. In some regions, we also have a paradox, with waste imported from Russia while local household waste is sent to landfill.”

He points to the waste processing plant in Brest Oblast which, according to his information, is currently operating at only 7-8%. Denis Katolikov, the head of waste processing company RePlas-M, located in Mogilev Oblast, also complains that, for processors, each year begins with legislative surprises. “We get a bit tired of the constant changes. The amount of waste collection in Belarus for the past six years remains almost at the same level, while our enterprise has to import from Russia,” he says.

The Belarusian Confederation of Businessmen and the Association of Recycling and Innovations believe that to improve the situation, the government will have to set targets for the state waste scollecting operator, as well as get rid of its monopoly in this area. Competition will not only support waste processors in terms of prices, but also increase the amount of officially collected waste, they say.

Export of waste to Russia

RePlas-M’s Katolikov also argues that state-owned operators should stop exporting waste to Russia, which they do in order to meet the government’s export target even if it hurts their profitability.

All in all, it seems that the government of Belarus still cannot find a way out for the waste processing industry. The country has a poor economy, which was shaken by the currency crisis last year, a lack of competition, and low quality of life for citizens. These factors, albeit not directly, all hamper any initiatives made in the area of waste processing. RW


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