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The recycling reality

By - 05.08.2015

Kosovo's green dreams remain on the back burner — for now.

The nature of Kosovo’s energy economy, with an almost-singular reliance on coal and extremely limited financial resources, places severe strain on the hope for a green, sustainable future. Kosovo’s environmental health is notoriously bad: polluted air and water, land degradation, lead and soil contamination and deforestation are among the more serious and persistent threats. These threats come at a cost; according to the World Bank, Kosovo’s annual price of environmental degradation is an estimated 223 million euros.

As a method of environmental protection, recycling has been a subject of much discussion in regard to its achieved efficiency versus the cost of the process. However, with the proliferation of life-cycle assessments — a technique that assesses effects associated with a recycled product, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency — the environmental sensibility of recycling has largely been recognized and accepted by policymakers. The economic side of the discussion is a mixed picture, but a study by Popular Mechanics highlighted recycling’s fundamentally local nature; despite the “significant upfront capital investment to implement a [recycling program],” municipalities can benefit from such programs in the long-term if they are rolled out effectively.

For Kosovo, achieving significant progress in ensuring environmental health is hampered by numerous factors, including a severe paucity of environmental data. This inhibits comprehensive environmental assessments; the Kosovar Stability Institute (IKS), a Prishtina-based think tank, described the data that is actually available regarding energy as “infantile.”

That same report also noted that the use of recycling on a large scale was “next to non-existent.” Ironically, Kosovo has a robust environmental law framework surrounding waste management and recycling. The bevy of laws and directives that form the legal architecture governing the environment are, in fact, somewhat reassuring, a sign that much-needed energy policies are being incorporated into the national agenda.

The dire state of Kosovo’s recycling capabilities is also highlighted by the World Bank in its Country Environmental Analysis, which states “Kosovo lacks proper waste management for virtually all solid waste types (domestic, industrial, healthcare and hazardous).” This is further compounded by the fact that “data and accessible waste-information systems are paltry.”

Through international administration and continuing beyond the declaration of independence in 2008, the Kosovo government laid out the legal and administrative basis for employing waste management programs. The Law on Environmental Protection, the Law on Waste and numerous “administrative instructions” govern how recycling and related initiatives should be carried out. “The recovery of waste by means of recycling, reuse or any other process with a view to extracting secondary raw materials,” “the use of waste as a source of energy,” and “the restoration of areas polluted by waste” are some of the stipulations included in the administrative instructions.

The Law on Waste intends to reduce the generation of waste as much as possible while reusing components from waste. However, a 2008 report by the Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency concluded that these aims are not being met. “[Kosovo lacks] effective mechanisms for encouraging waste separation and recycling,” the report concluded; it also found that data on pollution and other negative impacts on the environment is sorely lacking. The dire state of Kosovo’s recycling capabilities is also highlighted by the World Bank in its Country Environmental Analysis, which states “Kosovo lacks proper waste management for virtually all solid waste types (domestic, industrial, healthcare and hazardous).” This is further compounded by the fact that “data and accessible waste-information systems are paltry.”

Enforcement of these statutes and directives is also largely absent. “Kosovo recycles virtually no waste,” the World Bank notes. As a result, almost all waste ends up in landfills, is dumped illegally or is burned, practices that will continue without a proper enforcement structure. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Kosovo will develop adequate environmental enforcement any time soon. According to IKS, the “ambiguity of law and weakness of the state” allows “certain sectors of society” to operate “without due consideration to environmental sensitivity,” making even the simplest environmental cases difficult to prosecute. As such, the detail of the legal framework bears little resemblance to what happens in practice.

Thinking smaller

But even in the absence of a robust national recycling program, activity is occurring at the micro-level, which has significant long-term implications for the eventual adoption of a functioning waste management system. Recycling can be at its most efficient when it is done correctly at the local level. Currently, workers in the informal sector sift through dumpsters to find recyclable material that can later be sold to one of the several factories in Kosovo that are engaged in recycling basic materials, including paper and plastic.

It is also here, on a local level, where several initiatives in Kosovo are underway to boost employment and encourage the use of recycling to fill in the gaps seen at the macro-level; while the record of success is still mixed, there is momentum that can be increased with sufficient national attention.

One such effort is the development of sustainable municipal waste services, a project sponsored by German company GIZ, which specializes in international development. The project’s focus is empowering local municipalities to assume responsibility for the greater control over waste management that they’ve been granted in recent years, in a competent manner and in a way that is “citizen-centred.” At the heart of this project is the ability of municipalities to operate effective, publicly owned enterprises for the collection of waste. While more authority in this area has been passed down to municipalities since 2008, myriad challenges remain, including the lack of funds (fee collection rates are approximately 50 percent), patronage, and sheer lack of political will.

In general, the waste collection that is employed can be seen across an urban-rural schism: IKS research suggests that while 90 percent of the urban population is covered by some form of formal waste collection, less than 10 percent of rural areas have any form of collection service. According to GIZ, there have been significant improvements in waste collection in some cities; Prizren, for example, has assumed control of fee collection and has introduced competition among waste collection companies to provide better services to residents. GIZ program manager Kai Hofmann suggests that this has had an emulative effect in scores of other towns. “Many other cities are … following this example by expanding services to formerly unserved areas, reorganizing the collection in city centers, conducting awareness campaigns, especially in schools, developing meaningful solid waste management plans, augmenting municipal budgets for waste management and introducing waste separation,” he said.

Take it to the waste bank

A second branch of GIZ’s project, branded EcoFriend, is seeking to create “waste banks” in Prishtina that collect non-organic, recyclable waste. Households will be encouraged to separate their own waste products into recyclable and standard waste. They can then put those products into “separation at source” containers, placed next to their regular dumpsters in their neighborhoods. Informal collectors, largely those who already sift through individual household garbage, can then easily collect the separated waste and take it to the waste bank to cash it in. Collected materials will be weighed and assigned a monetary value based on market rates and an account will be created for the contributors, from which they can withdraw. Alternatively, residents could choose to take their separated materials directly to the waste bank and create their own account. In this instance, they could choose to take the money themselves, or they could donate it to the EcoFriend fund, which would be used for environmental education projects in local schools.

The EcoFriend project relies largely on the social consciences of residents to buy into it, but Hofmann is optimistic, saying the project’s early findings show a high level of demand for recycling initiatives. As such, he sees it as a win-win-win situation: residents are able to easily contribute to improving their neighborhoods, informal collectors gain more resources, and the municipalities gain from reduced costs associated with regular waste collection.

Ultimately, however, Kosovo can benefit from its own environmental richness. Anyone who leaves its urban centers can attest to that, and the country’s natural beauty could be the trigger to placing Kosovo on a sustainable path forward.

A separate project being implemented by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI)-Kosovo and funded by the European Union Office in Kosovo seeks to empower the disadvantaged Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian (RAE) communities through the lens of recycling to both provide economic opportunity and expand general environmental awareness. This initiative seeks to establish a recycling collective to increase the “capacities and output” of the RAE communities, many of whom are already engaged in waste collection. It aims to do this by providing them with the necessary expertise and resources to unify the sale of raw materials (in other words, establish a single mechanism to facilitate the process) in a “secure and collective manner.” A recent conference organized by ECMI brought together government officials, informal collectors, recycling companies and related organizations to discuss progress made in this area, and a report detailing the informal waste collection sector in Kosovo is forthcoming.

These projects are beginning to address what is needed in Kosovo to guarantee a hopeful future for recycling and similar green initiatives: employing effective services at the municipal level and empowering local communities — especially economically disadvantaged ones — to democratize the waste collection process and to enjoy its benefits. Efforts such as these, alongside numerous others, can also be supplemented by the work of NGOs by bringing environmental awareness into the classroom. Any progress that does not take place at the federal level is sure to continue at the local one.

Today, the cause for alarm over the overall integrity of the natural world is greater than ever; the effects of human-caused climate change are wreaking havoc on a fragile environment, and are poised to worsen with time. The irreversible damage to Kosovo’s unique and rich environment is at risk given current circumstances, and without reforms, the recycling initiatives discussed here will count for nothing.

Ultimately, however, Kosovo can benefit from its own environmental richness. Anyone who leaves its urban centers can attest to that, and the country’s natural beauty could be the trigger to placing Kosovo on a sustainable path forward. Recycling is a useful countermeasure against environmental degradation, given its fundamental purpose of taking existing material and repurposing it for further use. The initiatives highlighted here also have tangential economic benefits, which are always attractive to policy makers. Clearly, there is momentum at the local level that is growing exponentially as more and more unique initiatives are employed and more municipalities adopt sustainable waste collection programs of their own.

But for Kosovo to adopt recycling as a priority, more will be required at the national level. The lack of public recycling plants opens up a role for the government to play. Establishing public-private partnerships between both domestic and international companies could allow the state to better steer funding toward those better equipped to run such facilities, while still maintaining an ownership stake. Passing more powers to the municipalities could also complement what is already taking place across the country; the government’s inability (or unwillingness) to act decisively in this area means the local level provides the greatest potential for innovation and progress. In terms of recycling, Kosovo’s green future may yet be realized, but it also may rely on its citizens to embrace the responsibility of environmental stewardship as their own.

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  • 13 Jun 2017 - 15:54 Cindy: HI! I just read this article and got very interested and see if I can contact the author. I am doing an academic research on recycling markets. Thanks!
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