Authors: Kristina Cvejanov, President of Serbian Packaging Waste Recyclers Association and Žaklina Živković, Balkan Network Coordinator at European Greens
Warm summer in Serbia became even warmer in the circular economy community because of the decision that came from public utility company “Čistoća” Novi Sad, capital of Serbian province Vojvodina. This public company hired a private security company to guard municipal waste containers in this city, which surprised the citizens but also agonized the people who are advocating rights for collectors of secondary raw materials.
The case raised the question of waste management model in Serbia in the light of adopting EU standards and directives: should all EU countries and the candidate countries just copy and paste solutions that work in the so-called “developed West”, or should we respect cultural, social and economic differences, and in that way support local economy and vulnerable groups.
According to “Čistoća”, the main reason for the engagement of the private security is the damage caused by the collectors of secondary raw materials to the containers, but also the financial loss caused by the stealing of recyclable waste. The majority of Serbian citizens do not have the awareness that the waste they throw have some value, so it was expected that people will be surprised when realized that a utility company takes such a draconian and from human rights perspective controversial solution, in defending the content of containers, which according to the Law on Waste Management belongs to the municipal companies that collect waste.
The fact is that current system is not functioning because it doesn’t take in the account the actual situation and specificities that exist in Serbia. Only 5 percent of communal waste is treated, and in most municipalities, there is no infrastructure for primary selection of recyclable waste. Investment is urgently needed in this area, but before that we need a sustainable policy measures.
The expansion of informal collectors as a result of poor economic situation
For decades, the informal collectors of secondary raw materials have outlined the basis of the recycling pyramid in Serbia. They were present in our society since the 1960s, when the metal industry and the paper production industry began to develop intensively in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). “We buy old washing machines, boilers, batteries,” it echoed through the megaphone mounted on cars and van vans during the years of Yugoslav socialism. Unlike today’s, former collectors did not collect the waste from containers, but they directly took it from the household and small “neighborhood” stores, and then sold to companies that dealt with waste processing.
The first expansion of collectors from containers happened during the 1990s, when a sudden economic downturn began. In that period, the collector’s target was mostly food and old clothes. Former self-managing waste giants – companies that were engaged in the collection and trade of secondary raw materials or their processing were brought to the edge of survival, so that bankruptcies and privatizations would follow at the beginning of the new century.
Today the largest part of the secondary raw materials collected and processed in the country originates from the work of this informal group, which in a legal sense is not regulated by the legislation of the Republic of Serbia. According to some estimations, there are thirty to fifty thousand individual collectors currently working. 70% of the collectors are members of the Roma national minority who, due to the high unemployment rate, poor living conditions and ethnic prejudices, find it difficult to find employment in the community in which they live, thus jeopardizing the basic human right guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution Article 60 – right to work. Social aid, on average 50 euro per household member, is not enough for life above the poverty line, and waste is an additional source of income for this vulnerable group.
In spite of social benefit of their work, informal collectors are criminalized
An individual collector, daily engaged in collecting waste from municipal containers, collects a maximum of 1 ton of PET waste per month. To achieve this, their working day lasts from 10 to 12 hours, and they daily cross between 30 and 50 kilometers.
Unfortunately, individual collectors have no legal possibility to regulate their status and gain the bare minimum of workers’ rights: right to social, health and pension insurance, although they are a key factor in the development of the recycling industry in Serbia. According to the Serbian Packaging Waste Recyclers Association’s data for 2016, almost 80% of the total collected PET comes from the private sector, and only 20% of public utility companies, in cardboard and paper recycling industry only 1% of proceed material in 2016. came from public utility companies.
Having in mind that the private sector amounts most of its waste through the purchase from“natural persons” – informal collectors of recyclable materials, it can be concluded that most of the credit for the development of recycling business in Serbia and achieving national targets for recycling in accordance with EU directives belong to the informal sector.
This measure from public company “Čistoća” is obviously aimed at preventing informal collectors of secondary raw materials from collecting recyclable waste from municipal containers in the territory of Novi Sad, thus providing economically the most vulnerable members of our society for basic existence for themselves and their families. Their work is legitimate and socially beneficial, and therefore, in all aspects, it must become legal.
If this controversial decision becomes a model for the future in Serbia, it will have its impact not only on the lives of several thousands of workers but also on recycling businesses, that rely on steady income of raw material. Informal collectors work for the benefit of their community, feed their families, spend earned money in neighborhood stores, pay electricity, water, educate their children, participate in the economic recovery of their country. These workers represent the backbone of the circular economy in Serbia, ensuring the creation of new values from the waste and reducing the indisputable damage caused by its disposal in the environment, so they should be taken into consideration in creating new Serbian waste management strategy designed to ensure fulfillment of EU recycling targets.