Expert views (part 2): What are the biggest challenges in municipal waste management in Serbia?
In the second in a series of interviews on waste management with representatives of state institutions, the business community, academia, and civil society in Serbia, we asked what the biggest challenges are in municipal waste management and which models have proven to be successful.
The answers were provided by all six respondents featured in the interviews: Ivan Karić, a state secretary at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Igor Jezdimirović, president of the Environment Engineering Group, Aleksandar Jovović, a professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Belgrade University, Dejana Milinković, director of the Association of the Cement Industry of Serbia (CIS), Slobodan Minić, a special advisor to the Fiscal Council, and Suzana Obradović, secretary general of the Recyclers Association of Serbia.
The series of interviews was preceded by the introductory article about the problems, challenges, and possible solutions concerning waste management in Serbia. In the first interview, we asked what needs to be done in the period until Serbia’s accession to the EU, or until 2025; whether the proposed 11-year transitional period from the moment of accession would be sufficient to achieve goals; and how important the establishment of waste separation at source is.
BGEN: What are the biggest challenges in municipal waste management? What are the possible solutions to help remove bottlenecks at the local level and which models have proven successful?
Ivan Karić, State Secretary, the Ministry of Environmental Protection
Public utility companies founded by local governments are in charge of municipal waste collection in Serbia. The waste management problems are not equally and evenly present in all cities and municipalities, and activities to introduce the integrated waste management system are not carried out at the same pace by all local governments. This is primarily due to the means that certain local governments have at their disposal. There is no systemically organized separate waste collection, sorting, and recycling in Serbia. The existing rate of waste recycling i.e. waste reuse is insufficient.
Though primary waste selection is prescribed by the law, with paper, glass, and metal separation into designated bins being envisaged, separation does not function in practice, at a satisfactory level. Problems that should be noted include the inadequate number and structure of waste collection bins; the inadequate distribution of containers; a lack of adequate waste transport vehicles; an inadequate waste transport frequency; inadequate vehicle routes; and the unresolved issue of waste transport from health care institutions and certain businesses.
In the Republic of Serbia, 10 sanitary landfills are operational – four are organized under the public-private partnership (PPP) model and the rest were developed with the state’s help and are managed by public utility companies. Both these models have proven to be sustainable solutions, with certain shortcomings that are resolved through a continuous improvement of the system.
Slobodan Minić, Special Advisor to the Fiscal Council
Municipal waste management in Serbia is ridden with problems practically at every stage – and resolving the problems with municipal waste management will be the most expensive in the overall waste sector. The first problem is that around 20% of generated municipal waste in the country is not collected in an organized way, but rather ends up in one of the illegal dump sites, whose number is estimated at over 3,500. Second, practically all collected municipal waste (98%) is simply disposed in landfills that most often do not meet minimum sanitary requirements and is not treated in any way. By comparison, only 25% of municipal waste is landfilled in the EU on average, and the situation has also significantly improved in comparable Central and Eastern European countries, which landfill around 50% of municipal waste, and there is a trend of this percentage declining.
Practically all collected municipal waste (98%) is simply disposed in landfills that most often do not meet minimum sanitary requirements
A separate problem concerns reporting on quantities of generated municipal waste. The data that local public utility companies submit to the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is inconsistent, showing illogical trends and highly unlikely annual fluctuations. Finally, the strategic framework for resolving these problems has been in place for 15 years now, but has not been implemented, and is now outdated in light of the EU’s tighter rules concerning municipal waste treatment.
One of the reasons the process is lagging behind so much is the lack of coordination between local governments and failure to agree on the construction and functioning of regional waste management centers. In mid-2018, the government adopted a decree that was meant to remove this bottleneck, but it remains to be seen how this will function in practice. The lack of funds faced by local governments is another problem, heightened by local governments’ weak capacities for the preparation of projects that could receive EU funding. Providing expert assistance to local governments and strengthening their capacities for the preparation of projects is, therefore, one of key tasks in the coming period. In short term, it is possible to resolve several major problems, and this should include the adoption of a new strategic framework for municipal waste management, whose drafting was announced back in 2016. Local public utility companies need to be better equipped to improve municipal waste collection, while activities need to be launched to remove the existing illegal dump sites and prevent the creation of new ones. Also, there are several landfills whose construction has been launched, but the projects have been stalled over a lack of funds. The government could step in and secure the funds to ensure the works are completed – there is currently room for this in the state budget.
Aleksandar Jovović, Professor, the University of Belgrade Faculty of Mechanical Engineering
A good municipal waste management system carries a cost, and according to the 2010 Waste Management Plan for the City of Belgrade, for example, the cost is approximately EUR 10 per household according to estimates and prices from a few years ago. Even now, the cost is three times higher than a regular waste removal fee. This is one, fairly serious challenge.
Another challenge is the establishment of a waste management system and the construction of waste treatment facilities, which people do not want in the vicinity of their homes. A clear decision that we will adhere to the adopted regulations will make it impossible to landfill untreated waste and will enable increasing waste treatment and introducing a more efficient waste management system.
Dejana Milinković, Director, the Association of the Cement Industry of Serbia (CIS)
- A lack of organized primary waste selection by local government units;
- A lack of regional and local waste management plans;
- The low level of reliability of collected and publicly available data on waste generation and composition;
- A lack of sufficient amounts of municipal waste prepared for the needs of the cement industry;
- The uneven composition and the low level of quality of municipal waste on the Serbian market.
There are many good examples of establishing sustainable waste management systems throughout the EU. For example, Germany banned landfilling untreated waste in June 2005. A direct impact of the landfill ban was an increase in the use of waste by cement plans, with the alternative fuel substitution rate growing by 6.5% in only a year following the introduction of the ban.
Suzana Obradović, Secretary General, the Recyclers Association of Serbia
The biggest challenge is for the state to decide that the environment and health are a priority and establish a waste management system. It is important for this to not be merely declarative, but for rules to be known and respected within the system, which should also include fines for failure to observe the regulations. Cooperation of the state, local governments, and utility companies is needed to resolve the current problems and carry out investments in infrastructure.
What needs to be done is common knowledge – organized waste collection and treatment, including recycling, controlled incineration in waste-to-energy facilities, biodegradable waste composting, and finally safe disposal of the waste that remains. In EU countries, around 75% of waste is treated, with the percentage being close to 75% in some countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. In Serbia, most of waste is disposed without any treatment, in landfills that do not meet basic environmental standards.
What needs to be done is common knowledge – organized waste collection and treatment, including recycling, controlled incineration in waste-to-energy facilities, biodegradable waste composting, and finally safe disposal of the waste that remains
Given that Serbia has few sanitary landfills and thousands of illegal dump sites, investments in sanitary landfills are discussed the most. However, there are good examples that have moved beyond this system, which smaller local government units in Serbia could consider as an applicable model. For example, Maribor, Slovenia is headed in the direction of landfill shutdown. Its citizens separate waste into 3 bins and the waste is then transported to a sorting facility where mixed municipal waste sorting is fully automated, which enables reusing more than 70% of treated waste through the recycling process.
Igor Jezdimirović, President, the Environment Engineering Group
Efficient and appropriate operations of public utility companies in the interest of all citizens are needed instead of day-to-day politics and meeting individual interests – this is the main challenge concerning the establishment of a responsible and good waste management system. The sheer number of illogical decisions, “accidental” sidetracks, and mis-investments by certain public utility companies, together with “creative” solutions to problems, show that there is money, but no political will to resolve the problems. This also indicates that the impact of inadequately disposed waste and its uncontrolled burning on people’s health and the environment is not recognized as a serious problem by either the decision-makers or the citizens.
Waste management is an unlimited source of income if the system is established in an adequate and efficient way. This often requires much more than one term of office, so local governments rarely opt to resolve the problem during their terms of office, but rather do it only under public pressure or possibly demands to observe the law.
The most successful models I have had the opportunity to see are the Scandinavian models
The most successful models I have had the opportunity to see are the Scandinavian models of local governments associating into regions to tackle waste management, with local governments holding a monopoly, which is coupled with a high level of awareness, control mechanisms, and expert managers to ensure public utility companies really work towards resolving the problem in the interest of all citizens. It is in citizens’ interest to have a safe waste collection, transport, and treatment system in place, at the lowest cost possible. To ensure this, public utility companies must operate transparently, while the political agenda needs to be the wellbeing of the community, not individuals in power.