Welcome to the Clean Country*
February 8, 2019
In an article I wrote six months ago, I argued Russia was at a crossroads and there were two scenarios for the future of waste management there. I also wrote that the window of opportunity was quite narrow and was closing. If Russia chose the road of waste incineration, it would be an irreversible decision, at least for the next thirty to thirty-five years.
The window of opportunity has closed, and the scenario has been chosen. Russia is set to become a country with two hundred waste incineration plants and function as the trash bin of Europe and Asia.
What I am about to say is very unpleasant, and you are likely to put it down to the my pessimism. That is why I should say a few words about myself. I have been doing waste management projects for fifteen years. During the last seven years, although I lived and worked abroad, I would come to Russia on weekends and holidays to clean up trash, organize the separate collection of recyclables, hold conferences, and meet with officials.
I believed so strongly in Russia that when my contract in the United Arab Emirates ended in 2018 and my family decided to take a six-month vacation, we didn’t go to Bali, Goa or Montenegro. We went to Russia, where we made the rounds of conferences, met with officials, talked with activists, and wrote articles.
Until January 14 of this year, I continued to believe we could make a difference. This is hard for me to write after fifteen years of intense work in the waste management sector, after making so many friends and publishing a book. I feel responsible to my friends and my country, to my relatives who live in Russia and cannot leave.
I have always been someone who inspired and organized by arguing that small deeds and grassroots involvement would make a difference. I belied it was true, and I still believe it. But now we must admit we have failed.
What happened on January 14, anyway? President Putin signed a decree establishing the Russian Environmental Authority [Rossiiskii ekologicheskii operator], a public nonprofit company responsible for developing systems for the treatment of solid waste.
Let’s examine several points in the decree and find out what the dry, incomprehensible legal jargon means. The meaning of decrees must be deduced, since they contain numerous long clauses with nice-sounding words, difficult turns of phrase, and formal language. It is thus difficult to cut to the chase and figure out who and what are implied.
To simplify the task, I have replaced what I regard as superfluous verbiage with ellipses and generated my own reading. I am not a lawyer, and so I make no claim to be right. I could be mistaken. My view could be one-sided, so I would advise you to read the decree, watch the president’s speeches on waste management, and reach your own conclusions.
“The company is established with the goal of creating […] waste management systems […] for producing energy.”
I.e., waste incineration plants will be built. I should explain what this means for readers not familiar with the subject. Officials refer to waste incineration as the production of energy from waste or even recycling waste into energy. This language is misleading, papering over the fact that, besides the energy generated from waste, toxic ash and toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere as byproducts.
“It is involved […] in coordinating the work of the federal government, regional executive authorities, and local governments.”
So, the newly established company will tell the federal government, regional governments, and local governments what to do when it comes to waste. The wording is so gentle and deceptive: “involved in coordinating.” I think this means the new authority will them to what to do.
I am especially jarred by the idea of its riding roughshod over local governments. Are you?
“It is involved in drafting and implementing government programs and projects in the field of waste management.”
My guess is that the new company will handle all government waste management projects. The decree does not say this outright, of course, but no other company has this portfolio. So, I imagine that the new company will enjoy a monopoly.
“It drafts proposals for improving legislation […] and is involved in drafting regulations in this area.”
The new company can amend the laws regulating waste management. Other companies do not have this power, but it does. Does this mean no one else would be able to propose amendments to the laws on waste management? Formally, no. In practice, however, I think the new company will either coordinate or sign off on any and all amendments to the relevant laws and regulations.
“It is involved in drawing up […] agreements […] on the transport […] of waste generated in one region of the Russian Federation to other regions of the Russian Federation.”
That is, the new company will handle the logistics of transporting waste between regions.
“It carries out expert analysis of waste management transport routes and locations […] and submits recommendations for adjusting them.”
So, the new company will be deciding on the logistics, technology, and locations of landfills and disposal facilities in Russia’s regions. But what if local communities do not agree with its decisions?
“It analyzes […] whether the procedures of public discussion of proposed locations have been observed.”
The authority decides whether procedures for public oversight have been observed. For example, if a community opposes the proposed location of a landfill or waste incineration plant, the company can rule the procedure for assessing impact was not observed properly and declare the feedback made at public hearings null and void.
“It implements […] international cooperation […] on issues of waste management, and it makes agreements with international organizations.”
What international issues on waste management could there be? Maybe the decree has in mind importing waste from China and Europe, where the requirements for waste disposal have become more stringent, proposals for waste incineration facilities spark protests, and there is no vacant land left for landfills.
The import of foreign waste should be fairly profitable. Where will the money go?
“It invests temporarily available funds […] and engages in other income-generating activities.”
I will not hazard a guess as to where available funds will be invested.
“It drafts federal and regional government support programs for investment projects and analyzes these programs.”
I.e., it decides which projects to invest in and which not to invest in.
“It is involved in concession agreements and agreements on federal and/or municipal public-private partnerships.”
In Europe, waste management concession agreements are made for periods of twenty-five to thirty years, and governments cannot get out of them. What will happen in Russia?
“It provides […] guarantees (sureties) to private investors..”
For example, it could guarantee shipments of waste in a certain amount, as in Sweden, which provided guarantees to waste incineration plants and currently imports waste from other countries to be burned in Sweden, despite the protests of locals. Nothing can be done, however, because the Swedish government gave its word.
“It carries out voluntary certification of the technological processes, equipment, and capital construction sites necessary for implementation of activities in the field of […] waste management.”
Did I read that correctly? Certification is “voluntary” but at the same necessary for working in the waste management field, meaning that the authority sets the conditions for certifying technological processes, equipment, and construction sites, and no one can make a move without this certification.
“It functions as a customer, operator and/or developer of information systems in the field of waste management.”
The company will have its hands on all waste management information systems. It will bear sole responsibility for the accuracy of information about its doings.
“It engages educational and public awareness work in the waste management field and popularizes modern waste management technologies.”
The company will supersede all grassroots campaigns, organizations and movements that have been engaged in raising public awareness when it comes to waste management and recycling. There is not a word in the decree about cooperating with grassroots organizations, supporting them, developing them or even coordinating them. The new company will do all the educating, explaining, and informing, and the technologies it popularizes will be the most modern by definition.
So, what technologies will the company popularize?
Perhaps I am worrying in vain? Maybe the new authority will use its unlimited powers for influencing the executive branch from the federal level to the local, its capacity to make and amend laws, and its functions as investor, educator, and certifying agency to promote separate waste collection, recycling, and waste reduction? These things are also mentioned in the decree, after all, not only producing energy from waste. Maybe the company has been established for these purposes?
President Putin answered my questions on December 20, 2018.
“I understand people who oppose the construction of waste incineration plants. We have to make sure the plants do not scrimp on filters, and everything is top of the line in terms of technological know-how, as in Tokyo, where the plants are located right downtown, but there is no smell and there are no problems, because the right know-how is used. We must build two hundred processing plants by 2024.”
This was much more to the point than what Putin said on June 7, 2018, during his annual “Direct Line” TV program. He was as matter of fact as a politician could be.
The decision has been made: two hundred waste incineration plants must be built in Russia. The know-how will be determined by the Environmental Authority, which will have oversight over its own work and also “educate” people about the outcomes of its work.
The decree establishing the authority has been signed. There is no going back: the regime does not take back what it says. Welcome to a garbage-free country, dear rank-and-file Russians. Get your minds ready for “public awareness” campaigns.
That was my introduction. Now I would like to ask the environmentally aware segment of the Russian grassroots community a question. My question is addressed to those of you who know what dioxins and furans are. It is addressed to those of you who have seen the design specifications for the trash incineration plants approved for construction in the Voskresensk and Naro-Fominsk Districts of Moscow Region, and know the differences between this type of plant and similar plants in, say, Tokyo and Vienna.
For ten years you encouraged people to recycle while it still could have made a difference. When, however, you were ignored, you said, “There is still time.”
You thought the horror story in Moscow Region and the regime’s obvious intentions to build trash incineration plants there would trigger a broad-based backlash from the Russian grassroots. When they ignored the story, you said, “It serves Muscovites right.”
When Moscow’s trash was exported to Yaroslavl and Arkhangelsk Regions, you thought it would be more than people could bear. But it was okay: people grinned and bore it.
At each step of the way, the president’s statements have been more and more definite. Now the party’s over. The time for testing the waters has come to an end. The common people have accepted their lot and the powers that be are segueing into “public outreach” mode.
What are you going to do next?
“Dumping prohibited. Fine: 5,000 rubles.”
Arkhangelsk activists organized a nationwide day of protest. The protest rallies were attended by several thousand of the usual suspects from around the country. The protest was ignored, and the regime was confirmed in its convictions.**
That was the best possible outcome. If the day of protest had drawn huge crowds, the regime would have engaged in provocations and arrested the organizers. There was no way to get positive-minded activists who collect waste paper in their own residential buildings to attend: they have no use for rallies.
It would appear that the days of grassroots public conscious raising are over. I doubt the majority of peaceable environmentalists are willing to go to prison like Pussy Riot.
The few remaining dissenting organizations will be subjected to government inspections and shut down for violating the rules. They will be declared “foreign agents.” Or they will simply stop getting grants. On the internet and TV, their campaigning will be seamlessly replaced by the “outreach work” of the Russian Environmental Authority and loyal bloggers and reporters.
* The article’s title is a reference to the Russian government’s so-called Clean Country project for waste management.
** This pessimistic assessment of the protest campaign’s effect seems to be partly contradicted by a February 3 article in the Moscow Times, according to which 30,000 people came out for the protest in Arkhangelsk alone.
Thanks to Sergey Reshetin for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Activatica. Translated by the Russian Reader