Technology // Analysis

28 april 2014

The Earth Against Waste

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On April, 22 which is Earth Day established to draw the world’s attention to environmental protection, we asked our experts about one of the most urgent problems facing the modern world: how to deal with the increasing quantities of waste. Sigitas Rinkevičius, Head of the Waste Management Projects Department at COWI Lietuva, and Alexander Solovyaninov, Director of the Higher School of Economics’ Institute for Economics of Natural Resource Use and Environmental Policy, spoke about the amount of waste worldwide, what is being done to deal with its growth and what steps Russia is taking.

The amount of waste is increasing: what might this entail?

The ecological well-being of our environment starts with each and every one of us. Current changes in the environment are raising more and more questions about the impact human activity has on it. The ecological pressures on our world are on the rise because of irregular economic development and overuse of natural resources. Rising levels of waste are putting some of the most serious pressures on our world. The EU produces around two billion tons of waste annually, including some 200 million tons of household waste. In developing countries, the amount of waste is increasing because of industrialization and rising living standards. In developed countries, the growth of waste has stabilized in the last few years. The EU has recently been producing around 500 kg of waste per capita annually. While this may not seem a lot, after factoring in the constantly increasing life expectancy in the EU, a person will discard about 30 tons of waste during his/her lifetime: 400 times his/her own weight. Even a small increase (by 1%to 3%) in the pace of waste growth leads to exponentially bigger amounts of actualwaste.

The EU produces around two billion tons of waste annually, including some 200 million tons of household waste.

According to UN estimates, the Earth’s population will increase 20% to 8 billion people by 2025 and to 9.5 billion by 2050. Importantly, Asia and Africa will account for 97% of the population growth. Economic growth and rising living standards are also expected for those regions, inevitably leading to increasing waste.

Although the amount of recycled waste is growing every year (particularly in developed countries), taking waste to a landfill or, in most cases, to a simple dump site is still the usual practice in many countries. Piles of garbage have become a threat not only to the environment but also to human health. Scientific studies have shown that it takes one month for a paper towel to decompose, two months for newspapers, five to ten years for Tetrapak and other similar packaging to “disappear”, and regular PET takes 10–20 years to decompose in the natural environment but lasts for 400 years if buried in a landfill. Standard PET bottles take even longer, 400–500 years, to decompose.That is why some supermarkets have started using biodegradable plastic packaging. Even so, regular glass bottles are the worst. Some scientists say it would take a glass bottle more than five centuries to decompose, while others point to more than a million years. As materials decompose, all the toxins seep into the ground and mix with the ground water we use. Another widespread problem associated with landfills is gas (a mix of methane and CO2), which results from anaerobic decomposition of organic waste. The gas kills all surrounding vegetation and contributes to the greenhouse effect.

RIA Novosti

Burying waste does not resolve this ecological conundrum. One of the best ways to reduce waste is to prevent its accumulation (everything that is made, sold and consumed will eventually become waste). The measures to do so include recycling various items, repairing faulty equipment instead of purchasing new, manufacturing and consuming multiple-use products, and designing products requiring fewer raw materials for their manufacture. For instance, EU residents throw away around 25% of food products (worth around €500 annually). The next step in curtailing landfills might be an expansion of waste sorting and recycling (including incinerating, anaerobic fermenting, etc.). Some EU countries have achieved up to 60% waste recycling rates. Methane emissions from landfills in the EU have fallen sharply in recent years and waste sorting has become a basic habit producing good results. Introduction of “manufacturer’s liability” has also brought results, boosting waste separation, including that of hazardous waste.

Our world is becoming increasingly united in the 21st century and we all share a common future. Most waste is a by-product of human life and economic activity; people are both “producers” and “owners” of their waste. Waste will not just magically disappear but the quantity of it depends on how we view this problem. Baby steps are only the beginning.

Utilization of waste in the Russian Federation

Prof. Alexander Solovyaninov, DSc (Chem.), Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, Director of the Higher School of Economics’ Institute for Economics of Natural Resource Use and Environmental Policy

The waste problem currently has certain specific implications for the Russian Federation.

After factoring in the constantly increasing life expectancy in the EU, a person will discard about 30 tons of waste during his/her lifetime: 400 times his/her own weight.

First of all, not a single government body or any other stakeholder has any idea how much waste is actually produced or accumulated in various parts of the country, which is why any proposed measures to reduce waste or to slow down the pace at which it is produced should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Second, our country lacks a waste treatment and decontamination industry, including recycling. Relatively light-duty treatment facilities in some regions are only designed to provide a “cosmetic” solution to this problem. Establishment of a specialized waste treatment holding company as part of the Russian Technologies state-owned company, which was announced several years ago, never got off the ground.

Third, legal regulations relating to waste treatment are extremely underdeveloped and not at all up to the scale of the task in hand. Furthermore, the Russian legislation lacks a system of interconnected acts that would create effective economic incentives to reduce waste and to recycle.

Fourth, our country lacks North American and European-style specialized general-access databases of technological solutions for planning elimination of specific sites with accumulated ecological damage (solid household waste landfills, sludge, tail, ash, and slag storage facilities, etc.). That is why waste utilization companies mainly use in-house technology or proceed by trial and error.

Alexander Solovyaninov

According to a government report on the state and protection of the environment, the Russian Federation produced 5 billion tons of waste in 2012, the bulk of which, 4.63 billion tons, was mining waste, 800 million tons more than in 2011.Different manufacturing sectors accounted for 290 million tons of waste. Medical institutions contributed 2% of the total. The latter are fraught with the risk of infectious or other diseases because, along with toxins and other chemicals, they contain pathogenic bacteria and viruses, as well as radioactive materials. Hazardous waste (categories1 to 4 on the danger scale) amounted to 113 million tons in 2012.

Of that total, only 2.35 billion tons, or around 47%, were utilized and decontaminated (mainly by storing them in landfills). Of hazardous waste, 91 million tons, or slightly more than 80%, was decontaminated. Overall, the proportion of decontaminated or utilized waste has remained more or less stable forthe past ten years.

This means that the amount of non-utilised waste is increasing by 2–3 billion tons a year. At the same time, Rosprirodnadzor claims that only 31.6 billion tons of waste has been accumulated on the territory of the Russian Federation to date, including some 2 billion tones classified as 1 through 3 danger categories. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin stated at a meeting devoted to encouraging recycling of industrial and consumer waste that the amount of accumulated waste in our country was 90 billion tons and the total area under landfills exceeded 2,500 square kilometers. Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences have gone even further: according to N. Laverov, the amount of non-utilized waste in the country approaches 120 billion tons.

Solid household waste presents a particular challenge. The above-mentioned government report on the state and protection of the country’s environment says nothing about solid waste production and accumulation (the relevant columns show “no data available”). According to other data sources, the country produces between an estimated 35 and 90 million tons of solid household waste. What is more, all sources agree that between 95% and 97% of all solid household waste produced is dumped in landfills. Yet any notion that this somehow solves the problem of solid waste decontamination or safe storage could notbe farther from the truth.

The Russian Federation produced 5 billion tons of waste in 2012, the bulk of which, 4.63 billion tons, was mining waste, 800 million tons more than in 2011.

Experts at the NP Regional Ecological Centre in Novokuznetsk have analyzed the situation thoroughly enough and found that the Russian Federation lacks virtually any what might be called sanitary safe landfills. Most landfills are nothing more than permitted (legal) dumping grounds that do not meet even the existing sanitary standards. A substantial portion of those landfills (dumps) in Russia have been set up spontaneously, with no design documentation (with the exception of newer landfills built after 2000). Landfills have no berms or sanitary protection zones around them, waste storage technology is not complied with, there are no water-resistant foundations or seep protection screens, filtrate is not collected or treated, and dump gas is not collected either. Most landfills (dumps) are overflowing and must be shut down.

The area under landfills in the Russian Federation increases by 2.5–4% annually. Around 10,000 hectares of useful land are allocated for solid household waste landfills every year, in addition to land occupied by numerous illegal dumpsites.

The area under the biggest landfills (dumps) exceeds 50 hectares each, with each receiving more than 5 million tones of solid household waste annually. The best-known landfills are located in the Central Federal District (Moscow Region: the Iksha, Domodedovsky, Salaryevo, Scherbinka, Timokhovo, and Khmeryevo landfills; Yaroslavl; Skokovo; Volga Federal District (in Penza, Perm, Samara, Pugachyov, Balashov, Nizhny Novgorod, Ufa), Northern Federal District (Krasnoyarsk Territory: In Ulan-Ude, Tomsk, Nazarovo; Altai Territory: in Slavgorod), North-Western Federal District (Leningrad Region), Urals Federal District (in Chelyabinsk), and Southern Federal District (in Krasnodar).

RIA Novosti

Russia has only seven waste incinerators and two waste recycling plants. The technology cycles at those facilities do not include preliminary waste sorting, the result being release of large quantities of hazardous emissions into the atmosphere.

To resolve the waste problem, Russia should turn to the expertise of developed countries. The European Union has adopted more than 20 regulations on handling waste, including the Council Directive 96/61/EC of 24 September 1996 concerning integrated pollution prevention and control, Directive 2000/76/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 December 2000 on the incineration of waste, Council Directive 99/31/EC of 26 April 1999 on the landfill of waste, etc. Among other things, these documents envisage a reduction in the amounts of waste to be eliminated and an increase in the proportion of recyclable waste.

The tools employed to achieve this goal include a system for taxing waste-producing enterprises, development of a waste recycling strategy and improvement of systems for assessing the quantitative and qualitative parameters of waste. As a result, according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy, adoption of the Directive 99/31/EC helped almost triple the amount of recycled waste between 1995 and 2009.

The Russian Federation’s basic waste treatment legislation includes Federal Law No. 89-FZ of 24 June 1998 “On Industrial and Consumer Waste”and Federal Law No. 7-FZ of 10 January 2002 “On Environmental Protection”, as amended and supplemented on an ongoing basis. Yet these laws have proved insufficient to change the situation radically for the better.

At the end of 2011, the draft Federal Law “On Amending the Federal Law On Industrial and Consumer Waste” and Other Acts of the Russian Federation as an Economic Incentive to Waste Handling Activities” was passed at the first reading for the purpose of eliminating loopholes in the existing legislation. Yet the obstructionist position of the business community has put a brake on further progress of this law. For the same reason, the draft Federal Law “On Amending and Supplementing Certain Acts of the Russian Federation for Improving Environmental Regulations and Introducing Economic Incentives for Business Entities to Implement Best Technologies”, aimed specifically atreducing the amounts of industrial waste, has failed to pass, too.

The amount of non-utilised waste is increasing by 2–3 billion tons a year.

2012 saw launch of the State Program “Environmental Protection” for 2012–2020. While it sets rather ambitious targets for decontamination of category1 to 4 hazardous waste, the outcome of its first year has been far from satisfactory.

The draft Special-Purpose Federal Program “Elimination of Accumulated Ecological Damage” for 2014–2025 offers a solution to the problem of past environmental damage. It envisages, in several constituent entities of the Russian Federation, liquidation (utilization) of industrial waste that has been accumulated in sludge, tail, ash, and slag storages and other similar man-made facilities. This draft program is yet to be finally approved, however.

The abovementioned programs are aimed not only at liquidating existing waste storage facilities of various categories but also at developing and testing innovative technical solutions and technologies that can be subsequently implemented at other sites where there isaccumulated ecological damage.

Prepared by Darya Khaspekova, RIAC Programme Coordinator and Maria Gurova, RIAC Programme Assistant

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“The Earth Against Waste,” Russian International Affairs Council, 28 April 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=3607

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