Institutions and citizens in Serbia have the same approach when it comes to waste: they just want to get it out of their sight. But waste isn’t dormant. It comes back like a boomerang through our water, land, and air. It enters the food chain and slowly poisons us while we are not even aware of it. The main cause is that a stunning 80% of municipal waste, 2.4 million tons out of 2.9 million per year, ends up in unsanitary landfills – garbage dumps and illegal landfills, which aren’t equipped to prevent the spread of the pollution they generate. We are also endangered by fires like last summer at landfills throughout Serbia, when dioxins and furans, very toxic substances, were released. The 2.9 million tons of waste generated every year by citizens is sufficient to fill up the Belgrade Palace skyscraper 85 times from bottom to roof.
The consequence of the mismanagement of waste in Serbia, as we aren’t paying the expensive prevention – adequate disposal and reuse, is that we pay even more as people get sick and the environment gets devastated. But even that isn’t enough for us as citizens to accelerate the change by demanding the institutions in charge to change their behavior. Instead, we also contribute to pollution by throwing away waste directly into the environment, so the evidence of our negligence is visible everywhere.
This text is a part of the series called Serbia, from garbage dumps to circular economy. The title illustrates a challenging situation where, apart from a few shining examples, inaction in waste management is becoming a habit that portrays us as incompetent, careless, and unknowledgeable people that can’t tackle the growing issue with different kinds of waste. However, both the headline and common sense leave enough space for progress and a better, clean Serbia that successfully applies the circular economy concept. Our prominent experts, who we consulted during the series’ creation, have also assured us it is the case.
Pollution spreading from 138 garbage dumps and 3,500 illegal landfills
The fact that there are 138 unsanitary landfills throughout Serbia shows no citizen can avoid pollution from such locations. They are garbage dumps run by municipal or city utilities, and the local authorities determined them for waste disposal. Still, they don’t have the systems and mechanisms to prevent pollution from spreading, unlike sanitary landfills.
The matter is even worse when illegal landfills are added to the equation. Officially there are 2,642 such locations, but their number exceeds 3,500, according to a report called Waste Management in the Republic of Serbia within the period 2011-2020, issued by the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency. All in all, there are only 11 sanitary landfills, and they take 20% of the waste, 60% goes to garbage dumps, and the remaining 20% ends up in illegal landfills. One can say that the main issue is the lack of sanitary landfills and the absence of awareness among citizens that they can’t throw away waste anywhere they please.
The State of the Environment Report in the Republic of Serbia for 2020 confirmed that unsanitary landfills emit pollution that endangers the environment and people’s health. It identified 213 potentially contaminated and contaminated locations, where the presence of dangerous and harmful substances was confirmed, with concentrations that can cause significant risk for human health and the environment. There are 153 among them that were linked to waste management, namely garbage dumps.
Excessive concentrations of cadmium, copper, zinc, nickel, chromium, and cobalt were found in soil samples near landfills in Niš, and the values in Smederevo were above the legal limits for lead, cadmium, zinc, copper, nickel, and strontium.
Toxic waters from garbage dump severed a power cable
The waste management utility from the town of Bečej in northeastern Serbia had an experience that illustrates well the toxicity of drain water. An electric cable insulated with plastic and rubber that ran under the landfill was severed in just six months, and the plastic and rubber melted. As numerous international studies confirmed, the same destructive substance, strong enough to erode plastic, sinks with drain water into the ground and reaches groundwater and crops even at bigger distances.
No doubt we are poisoning ourselves
We spoke to Slobodan Tošović, a retired subspecialist physician and professor at the Sanitary Medical School of Applied Sciences (VISAN), Igor Jezdimirović, President of Environment Engineering Group, and Nemanja Stanisavljević, associate professor of environmental engineering at the Faculty of Technical Sciences in Novi Sad. They do not doubt that garbage dumps and illegal landfills cause risks for people’s health and the environment.
Research results showed the air around garbage dumps and illegal landfills is polluted and that numerous polluting substances are present in drain water
“The risks for people’s health and the environment are always there, and they can be estimated by researching environmental substrates like water, air, soil, at and around an unsanitary landfill. The research conducted so far showed the air around them is polluted, that numerous polluting substances are present in the drain water and soil,” Tošović stressed.
There were no studies of the population’s state of health around the unsanitary landfills in Serbia. Still, the state of air, water, and soil, which is bad, is a good indicator of their impacts, he stressed.
Suppose there is agricultural land in the immediate vicinity of a garbage dump or unsanitary landfill. In that case, the cultivated plants are directly endangered by dust and indirectly by wastewater and contaminated land, so toxic matters can enter the food chain, Tošović warned.
Fires are especially dangerous as they result in the appearance of cancerogenic, teratogenic and mutagenic substances that can easily migrate through the air and reach our lungs
Jezdimirović pointed out that polluting substances disposed of at illegal landfills and garbage dumps would eventually end in people.
“Due to the fact that a part of hazardous waste often ends up at illegal landfills and garbage dumps, different polluting and dangerous substances reach all of us. Fires are hazardous as they result in the appearance of cancerogenic, teratogenic, and mutagenic substances that can easily migrate through the air and reach our lungs,” Jezdimirović warns.
Cocktail of poisonous substances ends up in air, water, land
The pollution from unsanitary landfills could be divided into landfill gases, including particulate matter pollution and drain water.
Professor Nemanja Stanisavljević says that, unlike sanitary landfills, the unsanitary ones include no systems for collecting and purifying byproducts from the decomposition of the deposited waste: landfill gas and drain water – which is primarily created by the decomposition of biodegradable waste, which is food waste and garden waste.
Suspended particles can travel several hundreds of kilometers from landfills
In normal conditions, particulate matter is the biggest component of pollution emissions, especially during unloading and while machinery is at work. Physician Slobodan Tošović says it contains dust and suspended particles, which can include heavy and toxic metals, corrosive and toxic chemicals.
Dust precipitates in the location’s vicinity, indirectly contaminating the ground and waters. At the same time, suspended particles can travel for several hundreds of kilometers, so both land and water habitats in a wide area can be endangered, Tošović adds.
Then gases from the body of the landfill are emitted amid the decomposition of organic matter, dominantly methane and carbon dioxide.
Environmental engineering Professor Nemanja Stanisavljević says methane, which makes up more than 50% of landfill gas, is a very potent gas with a significantly strong negative impact on air quality. Of note, methane has a global warming effect that is 80 times stronger than CO2 during the first 20 years from emission.
Other substances can be found in smaller percentages in landfill gas, for instance, chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which are very dangerous for the environment and people’s health, Stanisavljević stressed.
Landfill gas causes air pollution
Stanisavljević asserted that organic acids, which microorganisms create by decomposing the deposited biodegradable waste, have the potential to mobilize heavy metals such as cadmium and emit them into groundwater and soil via drain water.
Deposited plastics decompose over time and release endocrine substances like phthalates, bisphenol, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Also, deposited plastic waste breaks down into microplastics, for which experts determined it can be found in human tissue, even embryonic placenta.
Drain water carries various organic and inorganic pollutants
Drain water from garbage dumps and illegal landfills for municipal waste is contaminated with a wide range of the said organic and inorganic pollutants, so it is essential to control which materials we deposit on our landfills as it is the best measure to prevent emissions, Stanisavljević asserted.
Carbon is the element that has made landfills active for many years, and it is the primary cause of the creation of landfill gas and drain water. The less carbon we deposit on landfills, the smaller their potential for emissions, so any deposition of waste without treatment delays the problem until the time when our children and grandchildren will bear the consequences.
The official report on waste management revealed waste is being deposited at 40 out of 138 garbage dumps without any supervision, while there is no reception register at 59 of the facilities. In other words, there is no guarantee that nonhazardous and hazardous industrial waste doesn’t end up at such locations.
Tošović says the scope of pollution from garbage dumps mainly depends on whether the hazardous waste is being deposited there. There is such waste in municipal waste as separation in households is still not regulated in Serbia.
The wind can disperse pollution from garbage dumps to remote locations
The impact, in his words, directly depends on whether winds at the location can disperse pollutants to remote areas and if there is contact with surface water and groundwater.
The abovementioned report confirmed that polluting substances end up in small and bigger rivers, as 26 garbage dumps are in floodplains out of 138 in total. One year ago, the Drina river and its tributaries were covered in waste, demonstrating the impact.
How does pollution affect people’s health?
Physician Slobodan Tošović said the people living next to garbage dumps are the most endangered, primarily from direct pollution – air contaminated with dust and suspended particles.
The air pollution they are exposed to, he says, increases the occurrence of respiratory diseases, especially among the more sensitive groups. Tošović said other organs could be damaged, too.
The types of diseases and other health issues affecting people depend on the length, way and intensity of exposure
Aromatic compounds are also carried by air, Tošović adds and underscores that they cause adverse psychogenic effects and impact health in other ways. Mercaptans and other sulfur compounds are released from the surface and landfill body, as do ammoniac and aromatic hydrocarbons.
Of course, he said, agricultural production around landfills is affected, so people are indirectly affected through food.
Asked about the types of diseases and other health issues affecting people from the pollution from unsanitary landfills, Tošović explained that they depend on the length, way, and intensity of exposure and accompanying diseases.
Most heavy and toxic metals accumulate in the organism and they negatively affect organs
“Generally, most heavy and toxic metals accumulate in the organism, and they negatively affect target organs. Also, organochlorine compounds are carcinogenic while, for instance, suspended particles have a local, mechanical effect on the lung parenchyma, and those smaller than 2.5 microns penetrate the lung barrier and enter the bloodstream. If the particles have damaging substances adsorbed, like different kinds of hydrocarbons, the health problems get more complicated,” Tošović asserted.
Why are there only 11 sanitary landfills in Serbia?
The crucial question is why there are only 11 sanitary landfills in Serbia while there are 138 unsanitary ones, which are banned in the European Union.
President of Environment Engineering Group Igor Jezdimirović points to the lack of political will and knowledge among decision-makers about the issue’s significance.
“The problems in waste management didn’t originate from a lack of technical solutions or money but, above all, from potentates that have been neglecting the issue on the local, provincial as well as state level. As the institutions tolerated the breaches of the provisions of the Law on Waste Management, it led to such a big number of illegal landfills and official municipal garbage dumps,” he added.
Like in other sectors, regulations aren’t bad, but they aren’t being enforced
It shows with waste that, as in other sectors, Serbia’s regulations aren’t bad, but that they simply aren’t being enforced. The law stipulates that waste must be deposited at sanitary landfills and that there needs to be primary selection. It means the material that can be reused, recycled or treated to produce energy can’t be sent to landfills. The same piece of legislation determined that municipal waste must be measured and its morphological composition analyzed and that hazardous waste like pharmaceuticals can’t be with municipal waste.
Professor Nemanja Stanisavljević asserted that the transition from unsanitary landfills to sanitary ones and to different waste treatments is a complex and expensive process that implies prioritization in the political agenda, defining a clear definition strategy, an obligation to implement it, and securing funds required for building the necessary infrastructure.
For more sanitary landfills, citizens need to pay more for the collection and disposal of garbage
He said the construction of a sanitary landfill, which may cost several million euros, directly affects the direct costs of waste disposal and the entire waste management service. In other words, citizens would need to pay more for waste collection than today.
Prevention is expensive; treatment is even more expensive
Our collocutors do not doubt that cleaning and rehabilitating garbage dumps and illegal landfills should be the priority task, including infrastructure for recycling, energy production, and funding through items like waste collection fees or environmental taxation.
Waste is not to be thrown away but to be managed, Igor Jezdimirović said and noted the authorities in Serbia generally just want to get waste away from the public eye and that they hope an environmental accident won’t occur during their mandate so that someone else can deal with the issue later.
The solution is to follow the hierarchy of waste management: prevent its generation, sort it, reuse and recycle it, use it to produce energy and then landfill it. That way, biodegradable waste, which makes 50% of municipal waste, would be composted and wouldn’t produce landfill gas and drain water.
Waste management is not a welfare issue but a utility service which, if it is bad, leads to far-reaching consequences for the environment and human health
Closing unsanitary landfills and opening sanitary ones isn’t the solution, he said, explaining that the point of having the latter kind is to have a place to dispose of what’s necessary to be landfilled, not everything. He highlighted the example of a sanitary landfill in Vranje, which reached maximum capacity as waste that was brought was unselected, including recyclable materials.
“Prevention is expensive and treatment costs even more. The way we are acting now is very bad for our health. It is a habit of kicking the consequences of poor waste management over to the healthcare system, which is in bad shape as it is. Waste management is not a welfare issue but a utility service which, if it is bad, leads to far-reaching consequences for the environment and human health,” Jezdimirović underscored.
How good are our sanitary landfills
As for sanitary landfills, Professor Nemanja Stanisavljević says they are designed and built in accordance with all sanitary technical and technological norms that apply in any EU country.
They are all relatively young compared to the sanitary landfills in the EU, they are currently going through an “adolescent phase” and are facing the same issues that landfills in the EU faced in the same phase of the development of the waste management system – the disposal of untreated waste only.
“In most of the cases in EU countries, the direct disposal of waste without prior treatment has stopped a long time ago. In order for any sanitary landfill in the EU to take in waste, it must be treated first, meaning stabilized so that its activity is reduced from the moment of its disposal. Such a landfill or such kind of a stabilized material, which contains less organic carbon than the fresh, untreated waste, causes incomparably fewer emissions both in the short- and long-term and it is easier to manage, but in our country, there is very little attention given to the matter,” Stanisavljević explained.
GOOD TO KNOW
Methane (CH4) is a gas created in human-induced processes but also in those that occur in nature. Together with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), it is responsible for the creation of ozone, one of the most dangerous air pollutants. At the same time, on its own it has an 80 times more stronger global warming effect than CO2 during the first 20 years after emission.
Drain water is wastewater drained from the body of a landfill. It can be from precipitation, from an outside source or created within the body of the landfill by waste decomposition. Drain water carries numerous unhealthy matters which contaminate surface water or groundwater.
Dioxins and furans are in a group of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They occur as byproducts of irregular and uncontrolled burning of organic compounds rich in chlorine. Uncontrolled burning of organic matter is one of the examples – forest fires, burning agricultural waste in the fields and fires at landfills or waste dumps.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a group of chemical compounds with a damaging effect on the environment due to their toxic properties. They don’t decompose easily, they are bioaccumulative and carried by air and water and they can build up far from the emission point and accumulate in soil and water environment.
Municipal waste is household and commercial waste.
Household waste is the waste from households that gets collected every day including the collected hazardous waste, bulky waste, and garden waste.
Commercial waste is generated in companies and institutions that are generally or partly involved in trade, services, office work, sports, recreation or entertainment. It excludes household and industrial waste.
Biodegradable waste is the kind suitable for anaerobic or aerobic decomposition, for instance, food, garden waste, paper, and cardboard.