The biggest problem is that there is no independent green fund
The ecological situation in Serbia is constantly disquieting. Environmental protection is still a side issue in the news, but also when it comes to the priorities of the Government of Serbia and the entire society. We talked with Goran Čabradi, Chairman of ASWA’s Managing Board, about ecology, green idea, green politics and the state of the environment in Serbia.
Waste has been a problem in Serbia for several decades, while recycling is often talked about. What have we done specifically in these areas all these years?
— The greatest achievement is that awareness about these problems is on a significantly higher level than just a few years ago, in both citizens and decision-makers. That’s the biggest shift. In practice, it has not changed much. In addition to several recycling centres and regional landfills, the vast majority of municipalities and cities in Serbia did not do much, and the line ministry does not have a proper strategy or plan of action. Our authorities most often count on donations or EU funds when it comes to handling waste, but in practice, that is not realistic to expect at all. I’m not saying that it does not happen, but these are drawn out processes, for which, I’m afraid, we do not have much time. In Serbia, we have a situation whereby we are constantly talking about boosting the level of waste management and recycling and have numer ous conferences on achievements in this area, but close to 25% of the generated waste is not included in the elementary collection process. That means 1,500 tonnes of generated municipal waste a day that is directly thrown on fields, forests or entrances to cities. Annually, this amounts to 500,000 tonnes. So, that’s half a million tonnes of waste that is not collected at all and left to the waste generators (households) for disposal. We have not yet solved the elementary problem of waste collection, and yet many are dreaming about the technologies that are used in the West. It is very important to understand that achieving progress in waste management is a process and that this process requires graduality and rationality. There is a mitigating circumstance in as much that we do not have to invent anything since everything we need already exists. We just need to carefully select models that are applicable in our circumstances but also be aware that progress in waste treatment implies new costs.
How much are we lagging behind European countries?
— Unfortunately, a lot, but fortunately, we can catch up to them. Luckily, we are talking about making the most elemental decisions about simple things. It’s not space technology. It is very important that experts are involved in decision-making processes, and that politicians are those who implement them. Our delay compared to the developed European countries can also be an advantage: let’s not repeat the mistakes that they sometimes did. That is why it is very important that the ministries adopt a strategy that will be realistic, rational, and sustainable so that all stakeholders have a long-term economic benefit. Today, in Europe, the average treatment of one tonne of municipal waste costs between EUR 100 to 300. In our country, the average cost for the same quantity is about EUR 10 – 50. We need to be aware that investment is an expense, and that any increase in the level of waste treatment will translate into a new expense for citizens. It is therefore important to be careful in choosing the future system. We are in the process of investing heavily in waste collection and transport systems, waste treatment, and disposal. Whatever system we choose, there is always the same thing at the end of the chain – the disposal of an unused part of the waste. Even when you incinerate waste, there is a part that still needs to be disposed of. We have already heard estimates that over EUR 2 billion euros has to be invested in the waste sector in order to achieve European norms. I think that this amount is significantly higher, but what our citizens need to know is that nobody will just give us this money. We have to pay that money for ourselves. To get back to your question – yes, we are lagging a lot, but not hopelessly. We need to provide money for every stage of progress in elevating the level of treatment.
The recycling industry is currently financed by subsidies from the state budget. What are the projections for the recycling industry for the next 10 years and do you see the establishment of a recyclable materials market as a possible solution?
— In itself, recycling is not profitable without the stimulation from the state, and our state must finally decide whether or not it wants to recycle and return waste to a reuse cycle. The state has passed laws that it does not adhere to. Refunds to recyclers are not paid in time and we are in a situation whereby the recycling industry is drawing its last breath. Only a few days ago, recyclers of hazardous waste received some of the compensation for 2018. The amount of money owed to them is still huge. At this point, the state owes to recyclers over 2.8 billion dinars for the previous years, according to the regulations and laws it has adopted. It seems that someone is playing games with a complete recycling industry, or someone does not understand its significance. At the same time, in 2018, the state collected 11.5 billion dinars from ecological tax, which was paid into the state budget. None of this money went for green purposes. Unfortunately, the projections regarding the recycling industry cannot be precisely defined. The Ministry of Environmental Protection suddenly announces the introduction of a deposit system which is not applicable in most European countries. One such decision can turn the whole industry upside down. So, what we have been building for years, step by step, can be shut down, and some new waste operators or waste managers will emerge. Another important thing to mention is that the Ministry has devised this system without conducting a serious analysis first. On the other hand, there are analyses that show that the money spent on this system will exceed EUR 1 billion.
What are the biggest problems faced by recyclers and waste processors? What is the solution to these problems?
— Currently, the biggest problem is the fact that there is no independent green fund. At present, 11-12 billion dinars are collected from ecological taxes and fees that are not spent on developing recycling. The state plans to disburse only 2.19 billion dinars to the operators of hazardous waste annually, and everybody knows that much bigger funds are needed for this. At the same time, the Minister is posing for pictures digging up dangerous waste across Serbia, but he has no solution for the problem, nor has he set up a systemic framework to prevent this from happening again in the future. If we continue in this way and without the establishment of an independent green fund, the problem will not be resolved. If the state would spend 11.5 billion dinars on the recycling industry, regulating landfills and building a waste management system, the results would be outstanding. At the same time, it is possible to increase these funds. According to professional estimates, more organized inspection services can generate additional 18-20 billion dinars for the green fund annually. Imagine if that money were properly targeted and if political scheming were not involved. Imagine how much it could improve waste management in Serbia, but also the overall state of the environment. This is a solution that we all need to insist on – having a green fund, that is non-partisan and independent.
In your opinion, what are the biggest environmental problems in Belgrade?
— Definitely wastewater and air quality. The waste is not so much of a problem. Last year, the city of Belgrade gave the concession for a landfill, although I do not think that the most rational solution was chosen. I also think that it will be very costly and that it will exceed the allocated budget. Regarding wastewater, Belgrade has the same problem as the rest of Serbia. In Belgrade, according to some estimates, one-third of households are not connected to the sewage, and investments in wastewater treatment are very expensive. And again, we have to foot the bill. The general problem is irrational energy consumption, and a large number of polluters make Belgrade one of the most polluted European capitals. Belgrade has enough green areas, but the problem is their uneven distribution. There are Belgrade’s suburbs that are well afforested, and, at the same time, there are quite a few streets that have no trees whatsoever.
How important is Chapter 27 for your sector which is expected to be opened in the coming years?
— ASWA gathers a large number of utility companies dealing with waste management. We communicate with them on a daily basis, and we have noticed that they were excluded from the decision-making process concerning our sector. Even the line Ministry has excluded them from this process, in addition to local governments which are their founders. This is absurd! The state is making decisions in this very important area without the opinion of companies that operate in that segment. So, the expectations of our sector, as far as chapter 27 goes, are not that great. We will try to involve the Association too, but we are absolutely sure that copying European laws and regulations without first carefully analyzing real capacities, both of companies and citizens, is not good. Another problem is that oftentimes people who are negotiating on behalf of the state and this very important sector don’t have elementary knowledge about this field. Currently, the chief negotiator for chapter 27 is a man with no experience in environmental protection. I’m afraid this is far from good for our country.