Waste management being overhauled in Russian Karelia

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2019-12-20 Kati Pitkänen and Taru Peltola

The state of waste management in Russia has long been less than stellar. Overflowing landfills especially near Moscow and Saint Petersburg and the toxins that they release into the environment have been comprehensively reported on in Finland as well. Considerably less attention has been paid to the state of waste management in rural areas on the Russian side of the border, even though littering is a well-known phenomenon to Finns visiting Karelia.

Waste management still in its infancy

While people in the rural areas of Finnish North Karelia are consternating about long distances to the plastic, metal, glass, paper and cardboard collection point at the nearest parish village, in Russian Karelia waste management infrastructure is practically non-existent.

For example, in Vedlozero, which has a population of approximately one thousand, there are only 12 mixed waste bins dotted around the population centre, while smaller villages may have no waste bins at all. Biowaste is often composted, but the lack of infrastructure is evident with the littering of village streets, roads and forests. Many people also burn their waste in their backyard or at the side of a field, and it’s not uncommon to see someone carrying out an oil change on their car at the side of the road.

The mixed waste collected from villages is deposited in landfills. However, legitimate landfills lack the capacity to accommodate all this waste, due to which a large share of it ends up in illegal landfills.

Ambitious plans

Russia has begun to tackle the woeful state of its waste management with new waste legislation. According to the new legislation, every area must choose a waste management operator who is responsible for the collection, transportation, processing and disposal of waste and the collection of waste management fees from households and other producers of waste.

In response to these developments, Karelia is also aiming to implement a three-year recycling promotion plan, replace current legitimate and illegal landfills with new landfills in which environmental impacts are given due consideration and start carrying out waste management. The number of mixed waste bins will be increased, and the separate collection of plastic waste will begin at the start of the year. The separate collection of biowaste will begin in 2020, and the separate collection of household glass and paper waste is set to begin in 2021.

Tradition of recycling broken

The state of waste management is also worrying residents. In Vedlozero, we met a Karelian woman at one of the municipality’s waste bins who considered littering and the condition of waste collection points to be major problems. However, she was against waste sorting at home. The Soviet-era waste recycling systems have been decommissioned, and waste recovery has been forgotten. For example, nowadays the returning of beverage cans and bottles is only possible in cities, and the people returning them are mainly underprivileged people with whom regular citizens do not want to be associated.

The municipal manager of Vedlozero also considered it unlikely that the waste management development plan would be realised on schedule. Under the new legislation, responsibility for waste management has been divided between the regional operator and municipalities, but it is still unclear how the renewal will be funded at the local level. The waste management renewal has already caused an increase in waste management fees, even though services have not yet improved and sorting possibilities are not available to residents. This has disillusioned many and may end up reducing people’s interest in recycling even further.

The first steps towards a circular economy in Karelia

There is hope in the air as well. In Sortavala, we visited a brand new waste processing plant built by local entrepreneurs, which is ready to start the processing of mixed waste once the contract with the waste management operator is finalised.

The entrepreneurs are planning on sorting at least plastic, metal and glass. The idea is to use recycled plastic to make 3D printing filament, while unrecoverable waste could be incinerated in a combustion plant to be built next to the waste management plant, with the energy produced fed into the national grid. In addition to this, the entrepreneurs are envisioning methane recovery from biowaste.

Steps towards the development of waste management have also been taken in Vedlozero. During this year alone, the number of mixed waste collection bins has been doubled, and the plan is to apply for funding from the local administration of Karelia for the building of covered waste collection points with solid foundations in 2020.

The development of waste management in Karelia requires considerable effort. The infrastructure needs to be significantly improved. Furthermore, operating methods for strengthening a responsible attitude towards consumption must be established.

In the WasteLess Karelias project, we are building waste collection points for three Russian and two Finnish rural villages in collaboration with local residents and waste management actors. In addition to this, we are also training residents on waste sorting and organising cleaning bees with schools. We are also looking into ways of streamlining the recycling and sorting of rural waste and how to build understanding of material cycles and the ways in which they are connected to local residents’ lives. The three-year project will culminate in the Trash Art festival.

The project partners are the Finnish Environment Institute, the University of Eastern Finland, the Association for Rural Culture and Education and the Russian Academy of Sciences/Institute of Economics from Petrozavodsk. The project is funded by the Karelia CBC programme.

Senior Research Scientist Kati Pitkänen and Senior Research Scientist Taru Peltola, Finnish Environment Institute

WasteLess Karelias

WasteLess Karelias addresses the problem of littering and insufficient waste management facilities in rural villages in North Karelia and the Karelian Republic. We encourage and support local residents, authorities and companies to improve their waste management system and the rural living environment. We explore local waste situation and the perceptions, knowledge and potentials of waste prevention and recycling. WasteLess Karelias organises local waste management workshops, clean up events, cross border school competition and a Trash-Art Festival.

The project is lead by University of Eastern Finland (UEF) and carried out in collaboration with 3 additional partners: Association for Rural Culture and Education (MSL), Insitute of Economics of the Karelian Research Center (IoE) and the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

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