EU warns Balkan nations about illegal waste depots, poor waste management

17/02/2014

Bulgaria's failure to deal with illegal waste depots violates EU regulations and raises the issue of the waste management problems in the region.

By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 17/02/14

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In many countries of the region illegal waste is deposited on roadsides and riverbanks. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

The European Commission (EC) is taking Bulgaria to the EU Court of Justice for its failure to implement the EU landfill regulations and keeping illegal waste depots on its territory.

Officials and experts said Bulgaria's case is a reminder of the poor performance of waste collection management across the Balkans and it may create difficulties for many states in the EU accession process.

Bulgaria has built two of 24 regional household waste depots it was responsible to construct by 2009 under EU obligations. There are still 113 operating landfills in the country that do not comply with the EU Landfill Directive, regulating the operation of these facilities, including location, conditioning, management, control, closure, preventive and protective measures against any threat to human health and the environment.

"Bulgaria has said that 23 new compliant landfills were to be constructed by July 2015 [with financing ensured through EU funds], and this is intended to lead to the gradual closure of the remaining 113 non-compliant landfills, but the authorities have not provided any clear timescale for the construction of the new installations," Joe Hennon, spokesman for Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, who recommended legal proceedings against Bulgaria, told SETimes.

Bulgaria's Ministry of Environment and Water sent the EC an action plan in 2012, describing in detail the procedure for closing old landfills and opening new ones, according to the ministry's press office.

"Under the environment programme, only two new [landfills] were completed in seven years. Thus, the old ones continued to operate, because we cannot make people not throw away their garbage," the ministry's press office said in a statement to SETimes. "Therefore, we do not take the EC's step [to take Bulgaria to court] as a punishment, but rather as support for the ministry. We have to build new depots and close the old ones within the shortest terms possible -- not only because of our commitments to the EU but also because of Bulgarian citizens."

While Bulgaria is not threatened by any fines at this stage, since this is the first referral to the court, neighbouring Greece pays tens of thousands of euros every day as a financial penalty requested by the EC.

Greece was sentenced last year by the EU Court of Justice to pay a daily fine of 71,193 euros for violation of EU landfill regulations. According to the latest EC data, Greece must close down 78 landfills. There are another 318 where this process has started, but is not completed.

Upon its accession in mid-2013, the EU's youngest member, Croatia, was given guidelines to establish the European System of Waste Management, which involves building new depots and dismantling the existing ones that are not in line with EU standards.

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Waste management is an issue several nations in the region have to address to fulfil EU requirements. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

According to the Environmental and Nature Protection Ministry in Zagreb, about one-third of Croatia's 300 landfills do not meet these standards. Authorities, however, are confident that with the sufficient financing coming from EU programmes, they will be able to deal with the issue without missing the deadline.

"According to preliminary data of the Environmental Protection Agency, during 2013 slightly more waste was landfilled than the target amount, but still it was 29 percent less than in 2012," Ministry of Environmental and Natural Protection spokeswoman Dijana Susac told SETimes. "This is the result of all activities that we have carried out and an indication that we're going in the right direction. The penalties, which we believe we will not pay, refer to the country without the initiative for change, and it is proven that is not Croatia."

EU integration means the countries in the region should bring their landfill policies in line with the bloc's requirements in order to avoid problems in the future.

In Albania, illegal waste depositing on roadsides and riverbanks is one of the first things that catches the eye of visitors. There are no official statistics of how many waste depots exist in the country, but according to the EU's latest data, only two -- in Shkodra and Tirana -- comply with EU standards.

In 2011 the Albanian parliament adopted a law on the integrated management of waste in compliance with EU standards, but the government continues to experience problems regulating waste management.

"The problem is not related to the Law on Integrated Waste Management but to its implementation," Edlira Mulla-Roberts, an environmental expert who has been working on the issues with the municipalities of Lezhe, Durres, Berat, and Tirana, told SETimes. "Many high fines are foreseen in specific paragraphs of the law for lawbreakers but very little has been done in reality to penalise polluters."

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) adopted a waste management strategy to build 16 regional landfills 10 years ago. Only six of them have actually been put into operation.

Due to the irregular shipment of waste "we have a situation where about 40 percent of citizens are leaving waste in the environment because the containers are full," Dzemila Agic, director of the Centre for Ecology and Energy, told SETimes. "The exact number of illegal dumps nobody knows, but we can say that the figure exceeds 1,000 locations."

In Montenegro, for the past seven years, a million tonnes of garbage have been dumped at Vasove Vode, which is the source of 15 drinking water springs. Villagers have been protesting for more than a year, but the authorities have failed to react.

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"We have to be more alike European citizens, we have to learn not to litter everywhere, we should clean public surfaces as well," Macedonia's Minister of Environment and Physical Planning Abdilaqim Ademi told SETimes. [Gabriel Petrescu/SETimes]

"We will continue [our protests] and will not allow our municipality to be turned into a landfill," Gojko Cimbaljevic, a participant of the citizen blockade which began in January 2013, told SETimes.

In Macedonia, despite multiple projects to establish waste sorting and recycling facilities, none of them has actually been fully implemented. About 210,000 tonnes of waste in the country ends up in illegal landfills.

Macedonia's Minister of Environment and Physical Planning Abdilaqim Ademi said the country makes strong efforts to comply with EU standards, but the public has an important role in implementing the laws that have been adopted.

"The Macedonian government is investing a lot in environment protection," Ademi told SETimes. "But we have to be more alike European citizens, we have to learn not to litter everywhere, we should clean public surfaces as well. I think that we can't just clean our own yards, but also school yards, streets, rivers, lakes that are our own property as well."

Mulla-Roberts said there are several necessary steps to solve the waste management issue.

The most important is to create the "infrastructure to manage waste: garbage bins, trucks to gather waste, waste disposal fields and recycling infrastructure," she said, as well as the "education of population to become a positive and contributing factor by sorting waste and dumping it where they are supposed to, enforcement of legislation for lawbreakers, be it simple citizens, cleaning, waste management of recycling companies."

This recipe can obviously be useful in Kosovo, where illegal depots are a common sight. According to the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, the main reason is that "in almost 40 percent of the inhabited areas, the service for the gathering of garbage is not performed."

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The ministry spokesperson Fadil Maxhuni said they work with local governments to eliminate and rehabilitate the illegal depots in different municipalities.

"The Ministry has financed projects for providing 3,000 containers; 120 of them have been distributed in the inhabited areas in some municipalities in which the services for the collection of garbage, was not performed until then," he said.

Correspondents Kruno Kratus in Osijek, Lindita Komani in Tirana, Linda Karadaku in Pristina, Drazen Remikovic in Banja Luka and Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.

What could be the best way to raise the public awareness over the waste management issue in the region and involve citizens in cleaning campaigns? Join the discussion below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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