Waste management in Serbia – problems, challenges, and possible solutions

Photo: Pixabay


February 19, 2019






February 19, 2019





Serbia has handed the second draft negotiating position for chapter 27 to the European Commission, and the authorities expect the opening of the chapter, which deals with the environment, to be possible by the end of 2019. From the moment of accession (the assumption is this would happen in 2025), Serbia is proposing an 11-year transitional period to meet standards for the waste sector. However, the country does not have complete and reliable data for the sector, whose investment needs are estimated at somewhat less than EUR 4 billion.

According to experts, Serbia’s outdated waste management law, adopted in 2009, the waste management strategy set to expire next year, with the new one still being drafted, and the fact that the Green Fund is yet to be established, even though this was announced for early 2017, make it uncertain that 11 years after 2025, if Serbia joins the EU at that time, will be enough to bring order to environmental protection, including the waste management sector, where the country has piled-up problems in a number of segments (the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency provides an overview of types of waste by composition, origin, and toxicity).

We have asked a number of representatives of the government, business community, academic community, and civil society what possible solutions they see, and we will publish their responses in a series of interviews over the coming days. The respondents are 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.

Waste quantities and (un)reliable data

According to the text of the Waste Management Strategy 2010-2019, the current situation at local governments in Serbia is characterized by unreliable and incomplete data on quantities of generated municipal waste.

According to a report by the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) on waste management in the 2011-2017 period, a total of 2.15 million metric tons of waste was generated, of which 1.80 million metric tons, or 83.7%, was collected by municipal public utilities. The median daily amount of municipal waste landfilled per capita was 0.84 kg, and the annual figure was 0.30 metric tons. This does not include some 20% of generated municipal waste which ends up in illegal dump sites.

Some 20% of generated municipal waste which ends up in illegal dump sites

The Fiscal Council, too, agrees that municipal waste reporting in Serbia is unreliable, and believes the reason for this lies in the fact that for years a large number of local governments have failed to submit requested data to SEPA. In 2016, for example, only 95 (out of 145) local governments submitted the required data. According to the international methodology recognized by Eurostat, missing data is compensated with estimates, but this diminishes reliability, the Fiscal Council wrote in a report called Investments in Environmental Protection: A Social and Fiscal Priority.

In the report, published in June 2018, the Fiscal Council called for significantly increasing investments in environmental protection in Serbia, already through the 2019 budget, noting that Serbia is among the most polluted countries in Europe, which is harming the health of the population and hampering economic growth. The authorities, however, have once again postponed a significant boost in environmental protection investments.

Slobodan Minić, a special advisor to the Fiscal Council

In the waste management sector, the most visible and probably the most complex problems concern municipal waste management, where Serbia lags seriously behind comparable countries in Central and Eastern Europe in virtually all stages of the process – from collection to disposal, while municipal waste treatment hardly even exists, according to one of our interviewees, Slobodan Minić, a special advisor to the Fiscal Council. He adds that Serbia also lacks a developed system of control and treatment of industrial waste so that we often have a situation where potentially very hazardous materials are illegally buried in the ground all over the country. Finally, there are also many weak spots in the management of other types of waste, such as packaging waste, medicinal waste, construction waste, and specific waste streams, according to Minić.

The first step towards resolving these problems, according to him, should be to boost public investments in building the basic infrastructure for environmentally responsible management of all types of waste. It is only towards the end of the investment cycle that Serbia would essentially catch up with European standards, which is why it is very important to launch it as soon as possible and finish a significant portion of the work before the country’s formal accession to the EU, says Minić.

Visit the Balkan Green Energy News website over the coming days to read what our other respondents have to say about this.

Bulk of municipal waste landfilled, only 3% officially recycled

What is known for sure is that most of the municipal waste in Serbia is landfilled, which should be the least favorable solution in the waste management hierarchy – after prevention, reuse, recycling, and other methods of waste utilization in line with circular economy principles, such as incineration of nonrecyclable waste for energy recovery.

The EU’s medium-term goals, which Serbia should also strive for, are to recycle 50% of municipal waste by 2020 and 65% by 2035, as well as to landfill under 10% of municipal waste by 2035.

Statistics in Serbia is devastating – the percentage of municipal waste recycled, according to official data, was about 3% in 2016, while the bulk of the generated waste ended up in landfills.

The percentage of municipal waste recycled in Serbia in 2016 officially stood at about 3%

Serbia, alongside Poland and Romania, is at the bottom of the list of European countries by the amount of municipal waste generated per capita, Eurostat’s data shows, according to a recent report by Euractiv.

The average amount of municipal waste per capita generated in the EU in 2017 was 487 kg, a slight increase from 486 kg a year earlier. The amount of waste per capita varies from country to country, and Serbia is near the bottom of the list, with 306 kg.

In the EU, out of the average 487 kg of generated waste, 480 kg is treated in some way – in 2017, an average of 30% of waste was recycled, 17% composted, 28% incinerated, most of which was used for energy recovery, and 24% of municipal waste was landfilled.

In Serbia, only 257 kg out of 306 kg of waste per capita generated in 2017 was treated, of which as much as 256 kg ended up in landfills and 1 kg was used for obtaining secondary raw materials.

The situation is better when it comes to packaging waste. According to the Fiscal Council, the current packaging waste recycling rate is estimated at about 35-40%, which is still much lower than the rates seen in comparable countries, and particularly compared with the standards the EU is striving for (65% in all members states by 2025) or those in countries such as Lithuania, where the packaging waste collection rate reached as much as 92% already in the second year of the operation of a deposit-refund system.


According to officials’ announcements, Serbia also plans to introduce a deposit-refund system, in addition to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) model, which is implemented through operators managing this type of waste. A model for Serbia’s deposit-refund system could be defined by the end of 2019, given that the drafting of a study is under way. It has not yet been decided whether merchants will refund customers when they return a container or whether returned PET containers will be refunded in some other way.

Waste separation as unavoidable part of solution for municipal waste

As much as waste management solutions are obvious – such as the development of a system of source separation and separation at waste processing facilities as a precondition for municipal waste recycling and treatment – it seems that the situation on the ground has not improved for years.

In Serbia, the municipal waste separation system is still in its infancy. Only a handful of local governments have started providing households with special bins for this purpose, which is of great significance for establishing an efficient system for recycling packaging waste and composting biodegradable waste. Moreover, waste separation facilities within landfills are also rare.

As a result of the absence of an ordered system, significant quantities of packaging waste end up in landfills. The figure mentioned in the public is about 50,000 metric tons of plastic packaging alone (along with municipal waste), which could be recycled instead, according to the Fiscal Council.

“Establishing the source separation of waste is the key precondition for the development of waste treatment, whether it is recycling, the use of waste for energy recovery, or other. In other words, we could say that the absence of source separation is one of the main reasons why less than 5% of generated waste in Serbia is currently treated, compared with about 50% in comparable countries of Central and Eastern Europe,” says Minić.

Even though this issue has been in focus for several years now, no attempt so far to establish source separation has been particularly successful. For example, projects launched in Užice and Novi Sad have been abandoned, while in Belgrade, Čačak, and Sremska Mitrovica source separation through the use of special containers for different types of waste is organized only sporadically, Minić recalls.

One step in the right direction could be the announced project to establish source separation in four regions of Serbia (Užice, Pančevo, Pirot, and Sremska Mitrovica) during 2019, which is financed from EU funds, Minić says. The experience with similar projects so far, however, represents a warning that successful implementation requires a much more active participation of all relevant institutions, from the Ministry of Environmental Protection to local authorities.

In the capital Belgrade, the largest city and the biggest generator of waste in Serbia, the launch of waste separation is expected in the coming years, as it hinges on the start of operations of new facilities envisaged under the Vinča waste management public-private partnership (PPP) project.

Specific waste streams are a specific issue

Specific waste streams are an especially tricky issue. This refers to certain types of waste with hazardous (harmful) traits, such as used batteries, electrical and electronic devices, end-of-life automobiles, waste oils, and tires.

Suzana Obradović, secretary general of the Recyclers Association of Serbia

“During the entire 2018, plastic bags dominated the agenda of environmental protection authorities, even though the only measure introduced was charging for plastic bags, while no solution, i.e. substitute for plastic bags, was offered. This is popular with the public because everyone understands the problem of plastic waste, and it is necessary to deal with it. However, we have other serious problems affecting the environment that are not being addressed. For example, we don’t know where tons and tons of waste engine oil is ending up, and it could irreversibly contaminate soil or water if it gets there. Waste engine oil is also burned, causing high levels of pollution in many cities,” says Suzana Obradović, secretary general of the Recyclers Association of Serbia.

One of the economic instruments on which Serbia’s system of managing specific waste streams is based is fees collected from producers (and importers) of such products and their reallocation to waste recyclers. The state collects about RSD 3.5 billion a year in these fees, according to the Fiscal Council.

Subsidies for recyclers are granted exclusively for recycling specific waste streams, through a public invitation issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. And while the recycling industry is complaining about the state’s failure to pay recyclers what it owes them for the waste already treated, the Fiscal Council believes that subsidies should only be a temporary model to finance the system (until the recycling industry is kickstarted and a market for recycled materials created), not a long-term and sustainable solution.

Specific waste streams include tires

However, for the recycling industry’s self-sustaining and sustainable functioning it is necessary to ensure enough raw materials, which, in turn, calls for developing a network for the collection of specific waste streams from households, says Minić. For example, electric and electronic waste (the fastest growing types of waste) are currently not covered as a separate item, which represents a significant obstacle to achieving the European recycling targets.

“Plans to establish a waste exchange market have been discussed for a few years now, but I have no information as to when this could happen. A waste exchange is a good idea in principle because it would provide the recycling industry with easier access to raw materials, but it should be organized in such a way that it also helps achieve the increasing recycling rate targets. In order to round off the entire system, it is also necessary to lay the groundwork for a market for products obtained through the treatment of specific waste streams,” says Minić.

Solutions exist for non-recyclable waste as well

The planned facility in Vinča is also expected to become part of the solution for non-recyclable waste, or, more precisely, waste that is left over after recycling and waste that cannot be treated through any of the reuse methods. Such waste is envisaged to be incinerated in a waste-to-energy facility.

A waste incinerator

Other facilities in Serbia can also be part of that solution, and the Fiscal Council believes that a total of EUR 30 million should be invested in mechanical biological treatment (MBT), solid recovered fuel (SRF), and refuse derived fuel (RDF) facilities in Novi Sad and Niš.

These capacities are expected to enable the incineration (and energy recovery) of some 340,000 metric tons of waste in Belgrade (Vinča), as well as the mechanical-biological treatment (and fuel recovery) of about 200,000 metric tons of waste in Novi Sad and Niš. The Fiscal Council believes the Belgrade facility could be put in operation around 2025, and the other two around 2030, given that work on these projects has not yet begun.

Waste utilization is possible at other facilities, too, such as the cement industry’s kilns, which can treat waste thermally to recover energy as well as obtain raw materials for the production of cement.

Aleksandar Jovović, a professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering

However, the fact remains that primary separation is a precondition for proper waste management.

According to Aleksandar Jovović, a professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Belgrade University, “primary waste separation significantly increases the rate of separation of recyclable components, i.e. the overall recycling rate, reduces the presence of components inadequate for subsequent processes, increases the heat capacity of the remaining waste that is to be incinerated and used as fuel, and reduces the amounts of waste gasses and hazardous waste created in the thermal treatment process.”

Cement industry can use waste as fuel and raw material

The Fiscal Council notes that the cement industry can use waste as fuel as well as raw material. One of the options that has appeared in international practice (about 40 years ago) is the use of existing facilities at cement plants for treating waste – municipal, industrial, and other types of non-hazardous and hazardous waste.

Cement plants can utilize waste in two ways. Firstly, they use tires, mixed municipal waste, waste oils, biomass, sludge (from wastewater treatment), etc. as alternative fuel in the cement production process. Secondly, industrial waste mainly (fly ash and blast kiln slag), but also waste glass, contaminated soil, etc. are used in cement production as alternative raw materials.

The Fiscal Council stresses that the use of waste at cement plants also requires the application of appropriate environmental protection standards, in order to protect the environment and avoid air pollution. Moreover, the very substitution of fossil fuels with waste leads to reduced air pollution (CO2 emissions). Finally, cement plants create opportunities for the treatment of some types of hazardous waste (oil processing waste, organic pesticides, pharmaceutical products, etc.) since the extremely high temperatures at cement kilns prevent the formation of pollutants.

Possibilities and effects of using waste materials as energy in cement industry
Photo: Cement Industry of Serbia

Although this practice was introduced in Serbia ten or so years ago, waste is still not significantly included in the cement production process. By adapting their installations, cement plants enabled the use of waste as alternative fuel back in 2008, and this now makes it possible for Serbia to catch up with the most developed EU countries in this field.

In fact, two out of the three cement plants in Serbia are managing to substitute fossil fuels with waste at an average rate of slightly over 20%, incinerating about 60,000 metric tons of waste a year. However, European practice has shown that the substitution rate of fossil fuels at cement plants is higher than 40% on average, and it is estimated that it can be increased to as much as 60% in the medium term. Also, around 300,000 metric tons of waste in Serbia is recycled, i.e. used as raw material for the production of cement (fly ash, etc.)

The main reason for such a low level of utilization of waste in the cement industry, primarily as fuel, is in insufficient quantities of municipal waste suitable for use in cement kilns. In order to be treated thermally, waste must meet certain quality requirements, first and foremost regarding heat capacity, moisture content, chlorine content, etc.

That is why the Fiscal Council recommends establishing a municipal waste management system, which primarily requires waste separation, in order to ensure that a larger portion of such waste is used as fuel in the cement and other industries.

According to the Fiscal Council, striving to reach a 60% share of alternative fuels in cement production by 2030 would call for increasing the quantity of treated municipal waste by a minimum of some 100,000 metric tons. This would be at least a partial solution for the missing capacities for municipal waste treatment, according to the Fiscal Council.

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