Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонскиελληνικά 09 Dec 16

Cleaning Up Romania

A team of technocrats had a year to try to turn around Romania’s abysmal record on recycling.

Adrian Lungu Bucharest, Tallinn
 A recycling plant outside the town of Buzau in southern Romania. Photo: George Popescu.

On entering Romania’s Ministry of Environment, a visitor must turn their back on the country’s best-known and biggest building, the parliament. Its sheer size is almost too much to comprehend. For much of the day, it casts a very long shadow.

In the ministry, up marble stairs, past chandeliers, is the first-floor office of Raul Pop. In the corridor sit three miniature recycling bins – yellow, green and blue.

Pop took up residence in June as secretary of state in charge of waste, one of a host of experts drafted into a technocrat government that entered office six months earlier after a nightclub fire that killed 64 people triggered an outpouring of anger over corruption.

The government was given a one-year mandate until an election scheduled for December, invested with the hope of the people that things might change for the better after more than 25 years of broken promises since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the man who commissioned the parliament building.

Pop’s brief was recycling – neither popular nor sexy – but indicative of Romania’s slow progress since the collapse of communism.

The country is rubbish at recycling and the environment is paying. If nothing changes soon, the people will be paying too.

Roughly five per cent of municipal waste in Romania was recycled in 2013, according to the most recent data from the European Union’s statistics body, Eurostat, compared to an EU average of 28 per cent. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, blighting the countryside.

Come 2020, if it cannot achieve a recycling rate of 50 per cent, the country faces sanctions of up to 200,000 euros per day. Some officials are warning of the imminent cut-off of EU money for environmental protection, vital funds for one of the bloc’s poorest nations.

With a shaved head and spectacles, 43-year-old Pop is an economist and an expert in waste. His boss, the minister, 47-year-old Cristiana Pasca-Palmer, is an expert in environmental protection who, like Pop, dropped her regular job with the EU in Brussels to join the cause in the wake of the nightclub fire. She brought with her a 34-year-old advisor called Elena Rastei, an environmental activist from the central Romanian region of Transylvania.

With the clock ticking to a December election, the three faced a race against time to get Romania recycling, fearful that the clamour for change might die down when the politicians returned.

In Pop’s office, the past was in the wood panelling, the heavy desks and chandeliers. The present showed itself more timidly, in a red laptop and EU flag. The parliament, an uncomfortable reminder of Ceausescu’s megalomania, dominated the view from the window.

“Like any other change, there will be a tipping point,” said Pop. “It will grow slowly until it reaches a critical mass and then it becomes a standard way of behaviour.”

Raul Pop, secretary of state in charge of waste at the Romanian Ministry of Environment. Photo: George Popescu.

Stop the rot

The fire at the Colectiv club in Bucharest on October 30, 2015 may go down as a watershed moment in post-communist Romania.

Mourning quickly gave way to anger over concerns that safety may have been compromised by corruption.

The owners of the club operator, George Alin Anastasescu, Paul Catalin Gancea and Costin Mincu, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and put on trial. Two employees of the Emergency Situations Department of the Ministry of Interior, Antonina Radu and Petrica George Matei, were charged with abuse of office for allegedly failing to perform the mandatory inspections of the club.

For the thousands of Romanians who took to the streets in protest, the tragedy was a symbol of the corruption still eating away at the Romanian state and society.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned and President Klaus Iohannis turned to a former EU commissioner and agronomist, Dacian Ciolos, to take charge until a new election could be held a year later.

Ciolos, not a member of any political party at that moment, filled his cabinet with technocrats, experts, EU officials and civil society leaders. His government issued a mission statement, saying the nightclub tragedy, and its apparent causes, had created expectations within Romanian society “which cannot be ignored”.

Pasca-Palmer, a former senior environment official and negotiator at the EU, was among those who signed up, taking the reins of a ministry with a recycling record that flew in the face of the bloc’s vision for a green continent.

The cover photo on her Facebook profile is of the protests that followed the Colectiv fire, with the words ‘The day we give in is the day we die’, drawing on the lyrics of a song played by the band that performed at the club the night it went up in flames. The lead singer was the only band member to survive the fire.

Romania has consistently trailed the field in terms of recycling household waste since it joined the EU in 2007, faring little better than its non-EU neighbours such as Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia, all former Yugoslav republics where barely any waste is recycled.

Even Bulgaria, which joined the EU at the same time as Romania, now recycles 25 per cent and landfills 70. Ex-Yugoslav Slovenia leads the pack with a 49-per cent recycling rate.

“Like any other change, there will be a tipping point”

– Raul Pop, secretary of state in charge of waste at the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

But even Romania’s official figures have been called into question.

In late 2015, amid the fallout from the Colectiv fire, environmental inspectors and prosecutors launched an investigation into allegations that some of the companies involved in recycling had been falsely inflating their results.

The scandal centred on so-called Producer Responsibility Organisations, PROs, created by major goods producers to make sure package waste left over from their products is removed and passed onto recycling companies.

Romania’s Environmental Fund Administration, an environmental protection body under the Ministry of Environment, fined six out of ten PROs tens of millions of euros, though they have challenged the punishment and the investigation is still ongoing.

Geanin Serban, executive director of an association of PROs called Eco Romania, told BIRN that the PROs – effectively the middlemen between goods producers, the waste collectors and the recyclers – could not be held responsible for the performance of the actual recycling companies. He complained that the law had been wrongly applied.

No silver bullet

Pop, who previously worked on environmental matters for the United Nations Development Programme, for Ernst & Young and for the non-governmental organisation Ecoteca, said there was no silver bullet, no “miracle measure” that would get Romanians recycling.

Waste management, he said, “works with many small, complementary measures, which have various implementing speeds”.

They include: a tax on landfills to make it more expensive to dump waste, a system of Pay as You Throw, PAYT, which levies higher taxes on those households that do not separate their waste for recycling, and a deposit scheme, which effectively reimburses consumers if they return packaging such as cans.

“If you do a comparative study, Romania has the cheapest land-filling in Europe. If we have the cheapest land-filling and the weakest performance, maybe that’s a sign,” said Pop.

The resistance, he said, came from the mayors of hundreds of municipalities who are in charge of waste collection and wield disproportionate power in Romania’s political system, given their crucial role in getting out the vote for the big political parties.

For the municipalities, critics say, the idea of collecting glass, paper, metal, aluminium and other waste separately sounds like an expensive nuisance. It’s easier and cheaper to dump it all as one.

In Bucharest, two of the capital’s six sectors even abolished taxes on waste in 2008 and 2012.

Rubbish at the site of Romania’s Vidraru dam. Photo: George Popescu.

“Here, recycling doesn’t work for one major reason,” said Pop. “The municipalities are not getting involved. It’s that easy. And if the municipality does not want to do selective collection, you can put pressure on anybody else [but] they don’t have access to the waste.”

“In any country west of Romania, there is selective collection, there are fines for not doing selective collection, there are operators coming and taking the waste separately from your home,” he explained. “In my opinion this is the area where we are lagging behind the most, the separate collection at source.”

Addressing hundreds of mayors gathered in the parliament building in July, Pasca-Palmer, the minister, set down the numbers. Romania, like the rest of the EU, had a target to recycle 50 per cent of household waste by 2020.

“In the first nine and a half years [since accession] we managed to reach three per cent. So three per cent out of 50 per cent in 71 per cent of the time we had,” she said.

“So if in the first nine and a half years recycling rose on average less than 0.3 per cent a year, in the time we have left by 2020, we must implement solutions that would increase recycling by almost 13 per cent on average per year.”

“That’s a performance 39 times better than we’ve done so far. We at the ministry of environment cannot do that alone and probably nor can you.”

An exception to the rule

One municipality in Transylvania has bucked the trend. Targu Lapus, a small town of around 12,000 people, took one million euros of EU funds in 2008 and bought bins and vehicles for the separate collection of household waste.

“We were more stubborn [than other municipalities],” said the town’s deputy mayor, Vasile Kraus. “We are really proud of this.”

“The cost of inactivity, of doing nothing, is much higher”

– Elena Rastei, environmental campaigner and adviser at the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

Kraus told BIRN that the municipality on average recycles 45 per cent of waste. For those households that do not divide their waste, “we levy fines, in order to teach this”, he said.

“This has been going for seven years and there is still some lack of discipline,” he said, particularly in apartment blocks with multiple tenants. “In [individual] households, the percentage is over 90 per cent.”

Rastei, the minister’s advisor, said doing nothing was short-sighted.

“Political will means a mayor who is open and determined to create a system for source collection and separate collection. He doesn’t have to be politically associated to a party. No way. It means that a man in a position to make a decision will make the right one.

“The cost of inactivity, of doing nothing, is much higher. It will have the support of the community, the citizen and future generations.”

Responding to the criticism, Madalin Ady Teodosescu, the president of the Association of Romanian Towns, said it was a matter of educating Romanians on the need to recycle. “Politics has nothing to do with it,” he said.

Teodosescu told BIRN that the problem would be solved when each of Romania’s 41 counties has a so-called Integrated Waste Management System, a system to coordinate the disposal of waste, including separate recycling bins.

Such systems are being created in 32 counties with EU money, but a report published in November in the Romanian-language internet publication PressOne.ro said that Romania’s slow and inefficient bureaucracy meant authorities had yet to select operating companies for each of them.

“When this [integrated waste management] programme is finished, selective collection will be done,” said Teodosescu.

Targets

In 2011, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, issued a set of recommendations for Romania, including the introduction of a landfill tax, a PAYT scheme, better regulation and inspections of waste management companies and publicity campaigns to encourage recycling. Little was done.

The recycling scandal that erupted in late 2015, however, may have triggered a change.

Since it emerged that the recycling numbers were being “forged”, said Pop, the PROs, the collectors and recyclers were suddenly under far greater scrutiny from the authorities and from the big multi-nationals that produce the packaging – the people who ultimately pay for the failure to recycle the waste through higher taxes.

Greater demand for recyclables means more money for the municipalities that collect the waste from the consumers.

“Until the end of 2015, when the package waste scandal emerged, they [mayors] did not get money from anyone for the recyclable waste, which means that there is no financial motivation to collect separately, that is to invest money in containers or to invest in separate vehicles to pick up the plastic and biodegradable waste,” said Pop.

A Romanian woman in Bucharest packs plastic bottles scavenged from bins into a sack for recycling. Photo: George Popescu.

Pop was upbeat in October.

A landfill tax, adopted in 2013, was due to enter into force on January 1, 2017, having been postponed twice.

The ministry had also worked through the summer drafting an over-arching waste management bill that Pop said he hoped would enter parliamentary procedure in the New Year.

Cristian Ghinea, who served as Romania’s Minister for European Funds between April and October 2016, was quoted in the PressOne.ro report as saying: “Let’s be clear; if [the National Waste Management Plan] is not ready by December 31, we risk the suspension of environment funds” from the EU.

Rules were also being tightened to require municipalities to gradually reduce the amount of waste they landfill or face fines.

For some, however, the pace of change was still too slow. Constantin Damov, co-founder of the recycling company Green Group, said the landfill tax could have been implemented in one afternoon.

“I have the suspicion that the [people at the] Ministry of Environment do not understand waste but understand an NGO-type opposition towards waste,” he said. They had framed the discussion in “emotional” rather than technical terms, Damov complained.

Pop said it was hard to comprehend just how much time was wasted on navigating Romania’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.

“You could do a PhD on it – how many people have to sign, countersign, give their approval,” he said. “Of all these things ... to technically resolve them takes five per cent of the effort. The rest is bureaucracy.”

In October, the government took a another step forward when it issued an emergency decree giving municipalities the right to levy variable waste taxes on consumers, with those who fail to separate their waste for recycling having to pay more – the PAYT principle.

BIRN asked Bucharest’s Sector Three municipality, where the tax on waste is zero, whether it would implement PAYT. It replied that it was too soon to say.

“In Sector Three we have a system that works and with which everybody is content,” the press office of the municipality replied. “We will analyse with great care this possibility [of introducing variable taxes] and will only then make a decision.”

Market forces

Nicole Seyring, head of the waste and resource management department of the German research organisation BiPRO GmbH, said PAYT had proved crucial in cities across Europe.

“The effect of this is very straightforward,” she told BIRN. “Separate collection increases very quickly in a city.”

Seyring worked on a study of separate collection schemes in EU capitals, commissioned by the European Commission, in 2015.

The Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, declared European Green Capital for 2016, had done a particularly good job of so-called door-to-door collection, whereby households have their own separate recycling bins emptied by the refuse collectors. The amount of recyclables collected per person increased almost tenfold between 2004 and 2014.

Tallinn, the capital of former Soviet state Estonia, was another strong performer, thanks to the sheer amount of collection points it installed throughout the city. It also reimburses consumers 10 euro cents for every recyclable plastic or glass bottle deposited in supermarkets.

Estonia is where the Let’s Do It clean-up movement began in 2008, when tens of thousands of Estonians took part in a one-day rubbish collection exercise. According to Let’s Do It, they collected 10,000 tonnes of rubbish in five hours.

The key was to harness technology, including Google Maps, to pinpoint the worst affected areas, said Meelika Hirmo, head of PR for the organisation.

“People didn’t even think that [garbage] was a huge problem,” Hirmo told BIRN. “Because a normal person does not calculate - a piece of litter here, a piece of litter there, a piece of waste here. They don’t sum it up as a map. We created that kind of a map, to help visualise things, how it really is,” she said, speaking in English.

“The idea is that you don’t just clean up, but you clean up the entire country in one day.”

The model has since been replicated around the world, including in Romania.

In September, the Romania branch held its fifth annual clean-up day, saying more than 130,000 volunteers had filled over 168,000 sacks with recyclable bottles, aluminium cans, plastic cutlery, textiles and other waste.

Pop said he could feel things changing, “a little”.

“The next years are going to be violent in terms of changes, at the municipality level,” he said. The recycling scandal had shaken things up.

“Finally, those who put packaging on the market and create an environmental problem have realised that they badly need the municipalities to function in this area as well,” he said.

In response, Serban, of the association of PROs, said recycling was in everyone’s interest.

“It is obvious that the producers and the local authorities have a common interest in recycling as much as possible of the package waste generated by the population, so their cooperation practically becomes compulsory,” he said.

Pop said his ministry was not capable of “pulling the cart for everyone. These forces need to function freely on the market”.

Adrian Lungu is an editor at the Romanian quarterly magazine DoR (Decat o Revista). This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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