Denis Stark: Welcome to the Clean Country

Welcome to the Clean Country*
Denis Stark
Activatica
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.

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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.

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“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?

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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?

c8238179bed9f435fa597a3ebd1272c2.jpg“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

Grassroots Recycling as a Threat to Russian National Security and International Football

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Football fans! You might want to know that this past Saturday, the monthly neighborhood collections of recyclables, organized by the Razdelnyi Sbor environmental movement, an entirely volunteer-run organization, were cancelled, apparently by the police or higher powers, in four of Petersburg’s districts (Central, Admiralty, Krasnoye Selo, and Kalinin), allegedly, because they were a “security threat” to the ongoing FIFA Confederations Cup.

Ironically, this same grassroots movement, which poses such a (non-)threat to national security in neighborhoods many kilometers away from the brand-new stadium on Krestovsky Island where some of the cup’s matches are being played, including the final—a stadium that was built at the cost of unbelievable cost overruns (i.e., kickbacks) and completion delays, precarious migrant labor (including slave laborers shipped in from North Korea, one of whom was killed in an accident on the site), and the demolition of the old Kirov Stadium, a nationally listed architectural landmark designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky—made a deal with cup organizers and FIFA to collect and process recyclable waste at the stadium after matches.

Meaning that, at the stadium itself, this same grassroots movement was seen not as a threat, but as a cynical means of showing fans that FIFA and the Russian government were all about “international best practices.”

This is a ridiculous, telltale story that someone other than lowly unread me and my crap blog should be reporting.

By the way, under normal circumstances, readers of my Facebook news feed would have got a message from Razdelnyi Sbor about Saturday’s collection points, a message I cut and paste and disseminate faithfully every month, because I want everyone I know to go the one-day collection points in their neighborhood with their recyclables, and because my partner and I go to our neighborhood spot in the Central District every month ourselves.

Last year, I even bought a Razdelnyi Sbor t-shirt, to support the cause and occasionally serve as a living, breathing, walking, talking advertisement for it.

I guess I’ll have to think hard about whether I want to wear the t-shirt again. I don’t understand how you can serve the authorities at their Big Event while letting down the ordinary people who support you in their neighborhoods with their volunteer labor and their recycling month in and month out.

A friend of mine was arguing on Facebook just yesterday that VK, the homegrown Russian social media where Razdelnyi Sbor has its community page, was where it was at, as opposed to snobby Facebook. But in the relevant recent posts on Razdelnyi Sbor’s VK page about the cancelled collections you won’t find word one criticizing the authorities for acting in such a brutal, stupid way towards a completely beneficial grassroots campaign. I would imagine the page’s moderators hastily scrubbed any such complaints, if there were any. I’m sure there were some.

This is the real Russia, about which I almost never read anything in the western media and, sometimes, in the Russian media, either. It’s a country where recycling enthusiasts (just like cycling enthusiasts, for that matter) are imagined as a threat to national security and as “agents of the west,” except in the one instance where they can make the authoritarian state’s Big Event seem more PC to foreign football fans, dishing out big euros for tickets, merchandise, food and drinks, and rooms. TRR

A huge thanks to Comrade Darya A. for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Razdelnyi Sbor’s website

Read more on this topic:

Sorting the Trash (Recycling in Petersburg)

Veronika Madyarova
Sorting the Trash
Snob.ru
June 3, 2016

Plastic: burn it or throw it away? A hundredweight of cast iron: turn it in for money or just leave it? And what do Jews have to do with anything? On the eve of World Environment Day, Snob introduces you to people involved in something quite unusual in Russia: waste sorting.

Blaming the Jews Again

Petersburg has five million residents. Four of them are involved in waste sorting. That would be us, Collection Point [Tochka sbora], and our several thousand customers.

We put our green trailer in a supermarket parking lot south of the Obvodny Canal. We accept almost anything recyclable.

The Obvodny Canal, Petersburg, May 27, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader
Obvodny Canal, Petersburg, May 27, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

If you could see the people who bring us their trash.

A handsome young deaf man who looks like DiCaprio. A young woman with a pet raccoon. Little old grannies who tell us nothing should go to waste. University lecturers whose courses we once attended. Lena, a rural agronomist, who comes from Leningrad Region once a month with a trunk full of garbage. Darya, a ballerina and biker who collects broken dishes all over the city and makes mosaics from them. We help her out.

Enthusiastic recycler Masha and her pet raccoon. Photo: Ilya Snopchenko. Courtesy of Collection Point
Enthusiastic recycler Masha and her pet raccoon. Photo: Ilya Snopchenko. Courtesy of Collection Point

There is also the middle-aged woman in a beret who brings us newspapers and empty kefir bottles, and pushes her theory on us every time she comes.

“My neighbor says he won’t turn things in for nothing. If it’s for money, then he will do it. You know why he is that way? Because he’s Jewish!”

“I’m Jewish too. And so is our director, who thought all this up.”

She freezes, her mouth twisted to one side. In a couple of weeks, however, she will be back again with her bottles, and the conversation will be repeated.

They say you can earn big money on recycling. Certain types of waste are actually worth something, such as waste paper or metal. But the collection and recycling of everything else, such as glass and especially petroleum-based plastics, are subsidized the world over as a long-term investment that will bring future environmental benefits.

We accept everything free of charge. The profit from the metal and paper covers (or, should cover) the losses from handling the non-valuable types of waste. We are making a go of it. But so far a lot of independent action is demanded of our customers, for example, washing and sorting plastics into four categories, and remembering what we take and when we take it. The most amazing thing is that they do it.

A Plastic Icon: Burn it or Throw it Away?

Two priests, one younger, one older, often stop by. The young priest, Father Sergius, skips along: he is overflowing with the joy of life. He once shared a moral and ecological dilemma with us. His parishioners often drag cheap plastic icons to church. You cannot really throw them away, can you? The only dignified way of disposing of sacred items is burning them. But burning plastic is bad for the environment. For the time being he has been piling them up because he cannot decide what to do.

Father Vladislav carefully cuts the labels off of bottles of Sacred Spring brand mineral water. I tell him not to bother. We take them as they are, with the labels on or off. It turns out he collects the labels separately and burns them, because the spring is sacred, after all. But it wasn’t this that impressed me about him, but the expression on his face when I told him there had been a fire at the collection point. The only other person I have seen with a face like that was a psychotherapist. It expressed not just compassion, but an absolute willingness to delve into the problem, to hear me out and draw me out, and to do it as necessary and as long as necessary. It was a professional reflex.

Collection Point's green trailer, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Collection Point’s green trailer, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Another regular customer is Svetlana, a veterinarian and former top model. Having conquered the modeling business, she has switched to saving kittens. She catches them, treats them, sterilizes them, and finds them a home. For every cat she treats and gets adopted, there are ten more cats that end up on the streets and multiply wildly.

Svetlana cares about the environment. She lives according the zero waste principle, recycling everything she can. Once she crawled into a basement to save kittens that had got stuck there. She somehow managed to tear off the metal grating covering the basement window. She telephoned me to ask whether I knew where there was a scrap metal collection point nearby. She wanted to recycle the grating.

She dragged it there and turned it in. She got four rubles for it.

We have more female customers than male customers. Many women get it after having kids. They think hard about the place where heir children are going to be living and what they will be breathing. Fumes from waste incineration plants? There is a special category of customer we have dubbed “the wife sent him.” Women often send us their husbands or boyfriends with the recycling. The men promise to take care of everything, but in fact they toss their bags any which where, making more work for us. And some men just toss the recycling in the nearest dumpster. We try and warn gals with environmental impulses that they had better rely only on themselves.

The Customer Is Always Right

They say the customer is always right, because he or she brings in the profits and can go to your competitors. That works in stores and restaurants, only not in our business. We have no competitors, and there is no question of making a profit, only of surviving. But we also get our share of customers who are always right.

For example, we do not accept light bulbs or plastics that are hard to process, such as polystyrene packaging and polyvinyl chloride.

Collection Point's home in the parking lot of the Auchan supermarket on Borovaya Street in central Petersburg, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Collection Point’s home in the parking lot of the Auchan supermarket on Borovaya Street in central Petersburg, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Some people react strangely.

“You are obliged to take everything I have brought! I have connections, and you will be out of here in twenty-four hours!”

Or there was this.

“And I am also supposed to be helping you earn money?”

This was my favorite.

“I have a university education, and you dare to tell me what to do?!”

Exactly. It is people who have achieved nothing in life who work with trash. Why should successful people even listen to them?

Fortunately, we have other customers. For example, Alexander, the plumber at the Institute of the Arctic and Antarctica.  He brings his own trash and always stays around to help. He and I once spent several hours in a row breaking down and flattening a large number of boxes.

By the way, in the midst of heavy physical work, people always switch to the informal “thou” [ty] form of the second-person pronoun. It just somehow happens of its own accord. When the work is over, they switch back to the polite “you” [vy] form.

That same plumber also bought us recycling collection bags at a time when we were having to choose between buying the bags and eating dinner. He also once hired us to sort through piles of junk in the basement of the institute, which spared us the choice for a couple of weeks. Thank you, Sasha!

Why People Are Not That Way

I have already said there are four of us. We are Collection Point, a tiny firm consisting of four people. The guy who started it all is Igor Babanin, the founder of Greenpeace’s Petersburg office and designer of an experiment in waste sorting that covered nearly the entire city in the noughties, but then fizzled out. Nowadays, Igor has shouting matches with building janitors, ships waste paper, does our miserable books, and in his rare spare moments pens vicious neo-Malthusian texts.

Dmitry Kuznetsov is professional ecologist, and works for us as a driver and loader. It is a total mystery how Dmitry’s GAZelle van is still running. Life-threatening breakdowns somehow fix themselves.

Dmitry used to work as an environmental inspector. He met a femme fatale on a fishing vessel. Between kisses, the beauty queen tried to persuade Dmitry to permit her to use a bottom trawling net, an infernal bit of fishing tackle that is dragged along the bottom of the sea, destroying everything in its path.

Dmitry refused to give her permission. Now he works with us. But he still remembers the beautiful woman.

Andrei Madyarov is a chemist by training, a builder by profession, co-founder of the RazDeln’nyi Sbor [Separate Collection] movement, and a near-legend in environmentalist circles. And he impressed me so much I even married him.

And there is me, too.

A member of the Collection Point team at work, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
A member of the Collection Point team at work, April 5, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Separate waste collection is a popular topic. Yeah, it would be a good thing. Yeah, the landfills are growing. Yeah, recycling is much better for the environment. But what are we to do if our government is the way it is, and we ourselves are lopsided? In Europe, however . . .

There is no legal framework for what we do. We do not have the support of a core business, and however much we would like to do it, we are not going to make everyone happy by doing separate waste collection. We do what we can. And, despite the difficulties, it would seem we have done the impossible. On a daily basis we see people taking responsibility for their own waste, meaning they are gaining control of their own consumption and their own lives.

If a person has once thought hard about the resources spent on producing goods and what happens to the things thrown into the trash, no advertisement will ever get to her again.

Basically, our provisionally commercial organization is supported by the commitment and awareness of these very same people.

It is a model of the green economy, which, allegedly, cannot be built, because “people are not that way.” Our people are that way.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up.