Waste as a problem in rural Russia

Moritz Albrecht,
Assistant Professor,
University of Eastern Finland,

Valentina Karginova-Gubinova,
Research Associate,
Institute of Economics, Karelian Research Centre,
Russian Academy of Sciences,

Gleb Iarovoi,
Project Researcher,
University of Eastern Finland,

Taru Peltola,
Senior Research Scientist,
Finnish Environment Institute,

While some waste fractions reached recycling rates of up to 70% during the end of the Soviet period, today merely 4-5% of Russian household waste is recycled. With only six waste incineration plants and few recycling facilities throughout Russia, waste mostly ends up in one of the 70 000 poorly equipped or illegal landfills or 1339 waste management centers with vast negative environmental consequences.

To solve the current waste crisis the Russian government followed the example of its western neighbors and amended its outdated waste legislation in 2017. The aim is to reduce the amount of waste destined to landfills, increase recycling, create a system for separate collection, and eliminate illegal landfills.

Main responsibility for waste management is ought to shift from municipal to regional level. Regional administration is obliged to adopt regional waste management programmes, establish territorial waste management schemes (TWMS) and nominate a regional waste management operator to implement the scheme. After the reform, waste fees are collected by the regional operators instead of facility managing companies, and the tariff is based on per person standard instead of square meters of living space. Furthermore, waste collection equipment should be standardized for automatized collection and improved waste statistics.

The new legislation has led to a variety of progressively revised TWMS throughout Russia. However, their implementation has proven to be challenging, and there is much criticism about increasing fees and poor service provided by the regional operators. In rural areas, the envisioned waste policy seems to be particularly unfit to provide functioning and just waste management for all.

Rural waste management challenges in the Karelian Republic

The regional programme and the TWMS of Karelia entered into force in 2018, introducing a stepwise plan to build six waste sorting complexes, expand waste sorting to new waste fractions  (paper, glass, plastic, biowaste), and close illegal landfills. The regional operator Avtospetstrans has a responsibility to manage sub-contracts, sorting stations and landfills, as well as to monitor processes, communicate with municipal stakeholders and report to the regional government. The duty to maintain local collection points remains with the municipalities. Despite introducing a seemingly well-structured system, the waste policy does not attend to the local realities of waste management. Urged by literature on policy mobility and based on the “localizations” of policy implementation we have identified three key challenges of implementing Russian waste policy in rural areas.

First, the priority of waste management in rural areas is to get waste out of sight, usually by means of landfilling, but due to insufficient waste collection infrastructure, even this fails. Our survey in three Karelian villages revealed that close to 70% of the residents consider littering a major problem in their village. Despite the high awareness of the problems and demands of local administrations to improve infrastructures, Russian waste legislation rests on documentation that accredits the villages with a non-existing waste collection infrastructure. The mismatch between policy documentation and local realities is based on assumptive narratives, and it prevents proper implementation of legislation.

Second, financing of waste management does not support policy implementation. The only functioning element is the collection of waste fees but it has not improved local waste management practices. Additionally, the policy of shared 5% public and 95% private funding to invest in new infrastructures jeopardizes the possibility to improve rural waste management since it will hardly be profitable for private actors.

Third, governing bodies do not have enough knowledge about local conditions and municipal authorities claim that regional authorities are not willing to improve communication. Despite high awareness of waste problems, most rural communities lack the capacity to tackle the situation by themselves, and other socio-economic problems are higher on the agenda.

Conclusions & recommendations

The challenges for solving rural waste crisis are enormous and there is reasonable doubt that quick fixes in the legislation or the TWMSs are able to address them. According to our experience, activation of local communities might offer an avenue to tackle some of the policy implementation gaps. In the Karelian villages with which we collaborate, enabling local actors, schools and local entrepreneurs to take action in their local waste management scheme has proven one way to achieve improvements. Bottom up empowerment and targeted support (e.g. educational material) can provide local solutions that are developed together with local stakeholders, mobilizing their capacities. Nevertheless, how far such bottom up policy experimentations can push a systemic policy transformation remains a question needing further attention.

The article is based on findings from the CBC Karelia project WasteLessKarelias (https://kareliacbc.fi/en/projects/wasteless-karelias).

Email: moritz.albrecht@uef.fi

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