Albanians fear country will become “rubbish dump of Europe”

Albanians fear country will become “rubbish dump of Europe”
The Albanian recycling industry says it needs more raw material to survive.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest October 17, 2016

MPs in Albania voted in September to allow waste imports, raising fears that the country could become a dumping ground for toxic waste from richer countries. While Prime Minister Edi Rama is pushing for the legislation to be adopted, opponents argue that resuming waste imports would be illegal given Tirana’s commitments under a treaty intended to protect the environment in the Mediterranean region.

Waste imports, which were banned in 2013, are a highly emotive issue in Albania, where the authorities have comprehensively failed to manage even the waste produced within the country. In the 26 years since the collapse of Communism, there has been an explosion in consumption, with a consequent avalanche of packaging waste that Albania was simply not equipped to handle. Data from the European Environment Agency show that municipal waste production rose by 80% per person between 2003 and 2010 alone.

Waste management infrastructure did not keep pace. Ten years ago, the country of 3mn people did not have a single landfill. As a result, waste was left in the streets, piled up and burnt or dumped in rivers, mountains or the sea - much to the consternation of nearby countries such as Croatia, which was forced to deal with the debris washed up on its beaches. Albania’s own tourism and agriculture sectors both suffered.

Despite this, the MPs from the ruling coalition who proposed the amendments to Albania’s law on waste management claimed that local recycling firms need more material if their businesses are to survive.

The argument of the Albanian Recyclers Association (ARA) is that there is not enough suitable raw material in the country and as a result for the last three years the industry has been “descending into bankruptcy or was going to be partially transferred to other neighbouring countries, such as Kosovo or Macedonia”. According to the association, waste is not currently separated by the local authorities, which makes it harder for the 42 local firms to get the material they need. 

“A strong existent [recycling industry] will be the most important supportive reason for the central institutions and local municipalities to implement a source-divided waste management. This system will provide the raw material needed for the [recycling industry], and will give value to the wastes which until now have remained outside the economic chain,” a spokesperson for the ARA told bne IntelliNews by email.

Their bill was backed by the parliament, but sent back by President Bujar Nishani on October 14. The president argued that the law is in breach of both the Albanian constitution and EU legislation on waste, which includes the principle of “self-sufficiency and proximity”, meaning that each country should manage its own waste. Nishani also criticised the failure to hold consultations with stakeholders before adopting the legislation. The parliament will now have to reconsider the law before deciding whether to adopt it.

Environmental groups have lobbied fiercely against the resumption of waste imports, since Albania currently recycles less than 20% of its own urban waste. According to the Alliance Against Waste Imports (AKIP), an umbrella group of NGOs and activists, in 2015 just 17% of the 400,000 tonnes of recyclable urban waste produced in the country was recycled.

“If we are not able to recycle our own waste, imagine how able we would be to recycle Europe’s waste,” comments Luis Jazxhi of the Albanian Green Party. “Since we are so small, so poor, so inexperienced, this is not the right time. Maybe in 20-30 years we can discuss it.”

Aldo Merkoci, one of the coordinators of AKIP, argues that if the government was to take action on waste management, the remaining 87% of recyclable waste “would provide enough work for the recycling business, they would even have to create more firms.” This is backed up by the EEA study, which says higher recycling “can only be achieved by increasing the availability of public recycling sites for separate collection of waste and other technologies for the use of materials from waste.”

AKIP has obtained the legal opinion of the Albanian cabinet of ministers on the proposed legislation, which also states that Albania is not ready to import waste. It even warns that opening the gates to imports could mean that local businesses will no longer have an incentive to work with local waste. Industry representatives did not reply to bne IntelliNews’ requests for comment.

Blinking an eye

Even more worrying is the possibility that hazardous waste could be brought into Albania along with regular household or industrial waste. Although Rama has promised that toxic waste will be banned, activists point to the high level of corruption in Albania and the lack of effective border security and customs controls.

“Imagine if someone blinks an eye to waste which could be hazardous or toxic or radioactive. I can’t be sure there will be no hazardous waste. I am suspicious,” says Jazxhi.

“Given we have a very weak state system … we are very afraid that with this waste might come radioactive or other hazardous waste,” agrees Merkoci. Taking into account the failure of the authorities to prevent drug trafficking and the recent hijacking of an armoured vehicle carrying cash at the airport, he asks, “are we willing for one guy who works at customs to let or not let any dangerous waste come into Albania?”

Their concerns are backed up by several scandals concerning shipments of toxic waste before the ban on imports. A 2012 investigation by Prishtina Insight revealed that Italian businessmen, many of them with links to organised crime, were importing toxic waste including lead batteries, expired medicines and oil residue into Albania.

This contributed to the pledge by Rama’s Socialist Party to ban waste imports once it came to power - a promise that was honoured in 2013. The same year, Tirana turned down a request from the US to allow the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile on its territory.

However, many Albanians are disappointed but not altogether surprised by the latest proposal to allow waste imports to resume. There have been numerous U-turns in the past, as opposition politicians campaigned against waste imports only to allow the practice to continue once they came to power, given the financial benefits.

Jazxhi refers to the “economical interests” of working with the waste industry. “In the middle we have clientelism interests … the waste industry is huge, there will always be waste, there will always be benefits. Who is going to suffer? The Albanian land, sea, fields, water, ecosystem.”

“The current government was … elected on the big promise they would ban any kind of waste imports into the country,” says Hysen Marku, co-founder of the informal Lidhja Shqiptare UK (Albanian League UK) group, which was set up to protest against the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in Albania. “Now the U-turn on the issue has raised concerns of a possible dodgy deal with what is known as waste mafia.”

Luzhim Basha, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, put this even more bluntly at a press conference on September 28 when he called Rama a “bribe taker” and said the plan to resume waste imports was “a mafia affair, corruption”. The Democratic Party has taken part in demonstrations against the plans, and is calling for a referendum, though the party previously allowed waste imports when it was in office.

Loopholes

Even after the ban investigations have shown that imports were continuing, according to Marku, imports “never actually stopped during the ban. They were either purposely labelled as raw materials, or directly shipped in as contraband.”

Loopholes were also available. Turkish company Kurum Holding has been importing used cars since 2012 when scrap metal was removed from the government’s list of waste materials. Kurum melts down the metal to feed its smelter, but the plastic, foam and other toxic materials it cannot use are simply piled up and left. Now that Kurum has filed for bankruptcy the fate of this toxic waste - considered to be Albania’s worst environmental disaster - is unclear.

Poverty and corruption are two important contributing factors to Albania’s history as a destination for waste. The international waste trade first became a phenomenon back in the late 1980s. “The cost of disposing of waste was rising and people started looking for other avenues that were cheaper than dealing with it at home,” explains Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), which aims to end toxic trade. “We had a spate of incidents of mostly hazardous waste going from Europe to Africa or the Mediterranean area.” Sometimes, says Puckett, they would simply “dump stuff on a beach”.

This sparked outrage especially among developing nations, and led to the Basel Convention, which initially just required evidence that both nations had agreed to a waste shipment. Developing countries and NGOs then pushed for a ban on any kind of waste trade from rich to poor countries. The resulting Basel Ban amendment is not yet in force but is being implemented by all states in the EU - a bloc Albania aspires to join.

Despite this, the waste trade continues helped by “very persistent brokers”, many of them based in the UK, trying to set up “mega deals”, according to Puckett. “They find countries either wallowing in waste or desperate for cash and try to talk to their politicians. We have shut down every such scheme so far.” Recent deals to be shut down would have seen waste shipped to Morocco and Sierra Leone.

In Albania’s case, the most relevant piece of international legislation is the Izmir Protocol, part of the Barcelona Convention, which was designed to protect the Mediterranean basin from pollution and contamination. It set tougher requirements on its signatories, including a ban on household waste imports.

“Albania, by virtue of being a party to the Izmir Protocol of the Barcelona Convention, is prohibited from importing ‘wastes collected from households’ and a long list of other wastes,” says a BAN legal opinion on the issue shared with bne IntelliNews. Unless Tirana decides to withdraw from the protocol, “Albanian imports of subject waste would be in violation of international legal obligations that Albanian agreed to uphold to protect the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding environment.”

Nishani’s decision to send the law back to the parliament does not rule out its eventual adoption, though there will be time for opponents to argue their case. In addition, a majority of all MPs (71 votes) would be needed for it to be approved, rather than the 63 MPs - a majority of those present - who backed it in the original vote in September.

Meanwhile, opponents are keeping up the pressure on the government. AKIP issued a statement on its Facebook page on October 16 reiterating that any amendment to the law on waste management to enable imports would be unacceptable. Several protests have already been held, including a blockade of the road outside the parliament with rubbish bins during the parliament vote. A smaller took place outside the Albanian embassy in London, organised by Lidhja Shqiptare UK. So far none have been on the scale of the thousands that turned out before the ban was introduced, but this is an issue that has mobilised Albanians in the past, and is likely to do so again. 

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