It’s Bin a Long Time Coming: Reforming Waste Management in Russia

Garret Mitchell

May 3, 2018

Irrespective of the established political system, election season worldwide is noted for platitudes from candidates on the stump promising reforms in exchange for votes. In 2018, Russia was no exception. Yet, absent from any discussion about modernizing the economy during the election – which included topics like pension indexation, greater support for entrepreneurs and further utilization of advanced technology – was the issue of reforming a broken waste management collection system.

The problems associated with Russia’s waste management system have been noted long before the recent outbreak of civil dissatisfaction regarding noxious fumes released from the Yadrovo landfill in Volokolamsk, a small city 75 miles west of Russia’s capital. A 2012 report commissioned by the World Bank noted that more than 80 percent of the nation’s landfills were 20 years or older, with 30 percent of those landfills deemed to be below contemporary sanitary standards. The report warned that if Russia continued to dispose of garbage without enacting large-scale waste recovery efforts, the number of landfills would have to double by 2025 to ensure adequate space for the resulting trash.

Waste management may be far down the list of concerns among citizens of a nation struggling with income inequality and basic infrastructure safety, but as protests in Volokolamsk demanding closure of the city’s overflowing Yadrovo landfill have shown, proper garbage disposal represents a burgeoning social challenge. At the same time, it also represents an opportunity for greater economic expansion beyond traditional raw materials extraction. Moving to a more sustainable model of waste management that includes modern landfill construction techniques and programs to separate recyclables from traditional garbage could not only stimulate job creation in nascent industries around the country, but also provide ancillary benefits like cleaner air and water, thereby promoting the general welfare of Russian citizens.

With landfills across the country occupying an area roughly the size of the Netherlands, the extent of Russia’s trash disposal operation is massive. Yet, for a country with a population of over 140 million people, Russia recycles just 4 percent of the more than 50 million tons of municipal solid waste it produces annually.1 For some products like paper and rubber, recycling rates have actually decreased since the later years of the Soviet Union. In contrast, Russia’s European neighbors separate around 33 percent of recoverable items out of their municipal solid waste.

In part, Russia’s troubles are attributable to the increase in living standards and consumption beginning in the early 2000s. Greater purchasing power has spurred demand for goods that are easily thrown away. In this respect, the Russian Federation has followed a trajectory similar to its Western neighbors, whose consumption has increased commensurate with their development.

As Russia is the world’s largest country in terms of landmass, the problem is not simply one of finding additional space to put the garbage. Indeed, Russia’s extensive territory may inadvertently exacerbate the problem, compelling officials to view landfill space as an inexhaustible resource, thereby putting off the adoption of modern technologies like waste to energy facilities (WTE).

According to recent figures, Russia incinerates less than two percent of its trash, which is still well below the rate of countries with similarly expansive territory such as the United States. As a comparison, the latest available data shows that the United States incinerates around 12 percent of the 254 million tons of the MSW produced annually, via approximately 70 WTE facilities across the country. Incinerating garbage can however produce harmful byproducts like dioxins when done incorrectly, and Russian authorities considering WTE technology to alleviate their garbage woes will need to ensure proper pollution mitigation systems are adhered to.

Moving to a more sustainable model for garbage collection and recycling in Russia could herald economic benefits like those seen in the United States, where, according to 2016 data from the EPA, recycling and reuse industries employed 757,000 people, representing $37 billion in wages. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) stated in in a 2011 report that from 2000-2008, the annual growth rate of employment in the recycled materials industry grew by almost 11 percent per year.2 While those rates dropped following the global economic crisis, they do indicate the potential for expansion in Russia where the initial industry base will be substantively lower.

In his annual address to parliament shortly before the March presidential elections, Vladimir Putin called on lawmakers to increase GDP growth by strengthening the overall business climate. While not explicitly a call for waste management improvements, Putin’s remarks would suggest support for initiatives that can help to overhaul an inefficient garbage collection sector.

In some areas of the country, such initiatives are already underway. Last year, Germany’s international news service Deutsche Welle profiled an independent collective of St. Petersburg residents who have launched their own recycling system without prompting from local authorities. More recently, the first factory in Russia producing biodegradable food packaging opened in Moscow oblast. The owner, Dennis Kondratev sees considerable business opportunities in a market with little competition.

Notwithstanding these few examples, the diffusion of Russia’s garbage system will continue to inhibit industry-wide efficiencies at a time when greater centralization is required to streamline processes. Like the United States, Russian garbage collection is carried out at the municipal level, a fact that would not necessarily be a problem if federal laws were codified and stringently enforced. Until this happens, piecemeal gains in larger urban areas may be the best that can be hoped for.

Indeed, the capital needed to modernize the Russian Federation’s entire MSW network is substantial. The World Bank report cited above noted that the country requires more than 40 billion euros worth of investment to achieve recovery rates exceeding those of the United States or Europe. This investment, if fully implemented, could eventually generate returns of 2 billion euros just from the sale of materials siphoned away from landfills. Nevertheless, it is a substantial, upfront cost for a middle-income nation.3

Investment in waste management, however, may be a cost that Russia’s leaders decide is worth bearing, as the alternative—doing nothing—could spur additional protests like those seen in Volokolamsk. This highly visible moment for trash management provides the perfect opportunity to start anew and focus on the economic and ecological benefits proper waste management can provide.


[1] Ibid

[2] Bakas, Ioannis, Earnings Jobs and Innovation: The Role of Recycling in a Green Economy, European Environment Agency, 2011, Page 17

[3] Ibid

Garret Mitchell is an International Trade Specialist at the Department of Commerce. He received his M.A. in European and Eurasian Studies from George Washington
University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where he focused on natural gas trade in Eurasia
and Chinese-Russian relations.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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