Georgian plans for Western-style waste management look iffy

Georgian plans for Western-style waste management look iffy
Tbilisi landfill.
By Carmen Valache in Stockholm October 20, 2016

In its new municipal waste management strategy passed in April, Georgia set ambitious targets for its recycling and waste treatment. Having inherited a Soviet legacy of non-sanitary dumping sites, this small Caucasian country is now seeking to align its waste management practices – as well as its overall legislation – with those of the EU in the hope of one day joining the bloc.

But an indiscriminate adoption of recycling targets and waste processing technologies used in the EU is not the best approach, experts argue, as national waste policies work best when they are adapted to the local social and economic contexts. The new plan, for example, has an unattractive price tag of €130mn by 2020, too high for a small developing country, though Tbilisi is hoping to finance it with the help of international financial institutions (IFIs) and donor agencies like USAID, which are already providing financial and technical support for waste management projects in Georgia. 

Recycle, but for what?

As is typical of many post-Soviet countries, Georgia abounds in dumping sites and non-sanitary landfills. A mere four landfills in the country, out of a total of 60 official landfills, comply with EU regulations. The rest, and the unofficial dumping sites that are ubiquitous in rural areas, are environmental timebombs that are in danger of polluting the air and poisoning nearby waterways, aquifers and communities.

But despite coming from a low base, Tbilisi has set fairly ambitious targets for itself. To reflect the EU’s “Circular Economy Package” – an initiative adopted in 2015 to reduce the amount of waste through product design innovation, materials reuse and recycling across all member countries – Georgia is now eyeing the introduction of policies like extended producer responsibility (EPR) by 2019 and polluter pays mechanism by 2020 in order to bring down the amount of landfilled waste to 10% by 2030, from almost 100% at the moment.

Such a feat is easier said than done, explains Thomas Lindhqvist, associate professor at Lund University in Sweden, who has consulted on several waste management projects in the Caucasus. “The EU is not good at recommending what steps should be prioritised in national waste strategies. And the problem is that quite a few EU members themselves are far from meeting EU recycling targets. Georgia is even further away than those countries. Therefore, in devising too ambitious a plan, the country risks being left with a policy that cannot be put in practice,” he explains in an interview with bne IntelliNews.

Seeking to boost recycling and recovery rates to 50% by 2020, the EU has begun to slap fines on the laggards that do not meet its waste treatment and recycling targets. Foremost among them are Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece. But there are several problems with this practice.

For starters, there are huge differences in the amount of waste produced in member countries. Germany might recycle more than 60% of its waste, but the country also generates 2.5 times more municipal waste per capita compared to members like Romania and Poland.

Secondly, the reason waste treatment technologies like mechanical biological treatment, dismantling of electronic waste and composting of food waste work so well in Western Europe is that there is a market for the products of these treatments as well as a culture of sorting waste at source (in households), which increases the quality of the recycled waste. The value of plastic flakes or recycled cardboard decreases significantly if they are contaminated with food waste or if they are wet.

Meanwhile, in developing countries like Georgia, markets for recycled materials are non-existent and the lack of a culture for sorting waste at source decreases the value of the recycled material. Introducing expensive technologies to treat waste and policies that are hard to implement before ensuring that households sort their own waste and there exists a market for recycled plastic, cardboard, glass and metal is senseless. “Developing countries cannot run complex facilities like mechanical biological treatment plants properly because they do not have the money or the competencies to do so,” Lindhqvist explains. “Georgia would be better off if it focused on closing down its unsanitary landfills at the moment, if it took measures against littering to boost its attractiveness as a tourist destination, and if it devised ways to develop the local recycling industry.”

While a full-fledged recycling programme might be hard to implement in a country of just 3.7mn people, the academic believes that plastic recycling and dismantling of electronic waste could prove profitable if implemented correctly.

Changing habits

Tbilisi has been slowly closing down its unsanitary landfills. In early October, it shut down a Soviet-era landfill in the Gurjaani District that was located on a swamp, endangering local waterways. But the feat of the state-owned waste company SWMC is complicated by the lack of monitoring and information about dumping sites and lack of funding to build more sanitary and modern landfills.

IFIs like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have been instrumental in financing waste management projects in Georgia. However, some of the projects implemented to date have failed to deliver on their initial goals. For instance, after equipping the municipality of Rustavi with a waste management facility, Tbilisi realised that there was no market for the recycled plastic flakes, an EBRD representative told bne IntelliNews earlier this year. “Our [waste management company] client in Georgia has managed to sell some [recycled plastic], but at a very low price and in a sporadic manner," she explained. In order to sell its products, the company had to search for clients in neighbouring Turkey, an option that was only viable because the client company was located close to the border with Georgia.

While things may look complicated at the moment, Lindhqvst is upbeat about the prospects of waste management in Georgia. “I think it should not be too hard to get Georgians to recycle – it will simply take some time to change habits,” he opines.

“Besides, I am a believer in deposit refund systems, which have great potential to boost recycling in developing countries because cash refunds tend to work well with low-income populations,” he concludes.