There’s no such thing as a free lunch

May 15, 2017

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

By Kristina Cvejanov, President on Serbian Packaging Waste Recyclers Association

The media recently reported that Serbia is preparing to open Chapter 27 on the environment in its accession negotiations with the European Union by the end of this year or early next year. The plan is to complete the draft negotiation platform by the end of June with a summary of the plan and to present it to the public for possible comments. The Serbian economy is part of the public. Due to that fact, waste processing industry as a part of that economy is not particularly happy. We would prefer that the state sees us as a partner in the process of preparation of the Chapter 27 opening rather than the role we have been provided, i.e. to provide comments.

There are several reasons for this. Not only because no one knows better than us, the people who make a living from waste, about waste management but also because experience to date has taught us that the state administration does not pay too much attention to our comments. We have commented extensively so far, mainly to no avail.

Efficient Environmental Protection Fund a precondition for solving environmental protection

For years, the waste processing and recycling industry has been making a point that as a state we will not be able to reach European Union environmental standards if we do not restore the Environmental Protection Fund and do not secure efficient collection of eco taxes which are to be invested in the environment.  They have been constantly pointing out that there is no efficient system of packaging waste management without a solution which would include 30,000 informal waste collectors  and a reform of the public utility services sector, that we need a separate Environmental Protection Ministry and that the capabilities of the administration cannot meet the requirements placed before Serbia by Chapter 27. The European Commission has agreed with most of our comments in its report. They recommend that we should not hurry and that we should consider the comments before submitting proposals on the opening of Chapter 27, but we seem to have rushed forward. In opening it, not in providing proper solutions.

Let us make it clear – noone has more reason to be happy about the opening of Chapter 27 than the recycling industry. However, in our case there is some anxiety. Namely, the trait of the economy is to be realistic and cautious and understands that all those fine lines which connect it with the environment that it operates in. For that reasons, there is no one who understands better  than the Serbian waste processing industry how far away we are from the EU standards defined in numerous directives in the field of waste management. We do not want to slow down the negotiation process, we want to speed up the process of resolving the large number of problems which have piled up in this field because we are aware that there will be a painful reality check at the end of the European road if we do not do this.

Europe does allow flexibility but does not tolerate failure to meet deadlines and that is something we, southerners, are prone to do.

Landfills and damps are not to take us to EU 

Late in April, the European Commission decided to take Romania and Slovenia to the European Court of Justice for failure to implement EU directives on waste management. For those of you who don’t know, this means that both countries will have to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in fines if the court rules against them.

Maybe this news did not draw the attention of Serbian media but it certainly should have drawn the attention of both the negotiation team and the government in Belgrade and that is something that Siniša Mitrović, Director of the Circular Economy Centre at the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, agrees with.

“At a time when Serbia is creating its platform for negotiations with the EU, the report that the European Commission is taking Romania and Slovenia to court for not implementing EU directives on waste management comes at the best possible time for our political decision makers. Every “building up” of figures on our situation and “hastily promised speed” in solving the problem of communal waste and historic landfills could cost us dearly in the future. Our statistics show that we have some 3,500 landfills and more than 100 unregulated dumps and that is a problem but it is also an opportunity for wise, smart and pragmatic solutions. Perhaps we are capable of speeding up the mandatory primary waste selection process, maybe we are brave enough to introduce a landfill tax and “pressure” the local political elites and public-communal sector to speed up the transformation and offer of services to the population modeled on public-private partnership and create a modern and efficient communal service sector.

The “Hrabri čistač” waste industry association in Serbia is carefully following events in Brussels. I regularly trade information and comments with the association’s General Secretary Sandra Kamberović. After all, two of us dealing with waste management are for sure smarter when elaborating and bringing conclusions together. Sandra said that the European Commission’s  decision is the consequence of Slovenia’s late and inadequate reaction to warnings from the Commission about the Directive on Landfills which will result in fines for that EU member state and the introduction of an urgent time frame to deal with and shut down the landfills.

“The Republic of Serbia, having seen the negative experiences of the countries from the region, should work in continuity to solve open issues is establishing a waste management system while taking strategic decisions, including an achievable time frame to shut down unsanitary and unregulated landfills. The European Commission does not forget deadlines and accepted obligations. Failure to meet agreed deadlines carries a high price in money from the budget of the state which does not respect its obligations,” Sandra elaborated.

Romanian example as a warning

The example of Romania is even more important to Serbia because of the many similarities between the two countries. The problem with adopting strategic documents are well known to our government. Romania under-performed in the field of waste management with a 72% landfill rate that left it far below the EU average of 25.6% in 2015. In Serbia the land-filling stands at 95%.

Like Serbia, Romania left the management of packaging waste to system operators, so-called organizations for the extended accountability of manufacturers which the “polluter” companies use to make sure that the waste packaging from their products is collected and passed on to recycling companies. Unlike Serbia which has absolutely no operator system control, the Romanian environmental inspection and prosecution launched an investigation in 2015 over charges that the reports on amounts of recycled packaging waste claimed significantly larger amounts of waste than actually collected and recycled. The management of the Romanian Environmental Fund, a body within the  Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, fined six of the 10 existing operators ordering them to pay tens of millions of euroa. The appeals procedure on that case is still ongoing.

Along with the increase of packaging waste targets and the existing level of investments into the system, Serbia is most probably to face Romanian scenario. If we are smart we are to learn from the mistakes of others. If the state and its administration miss this opportunity, the population of Serbia will pay for the mistake because the European Union abides by the rule – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.