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Aleksandar Jovović, PhD, University of Belgrade, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering

Improve Waste Management Systems

The establishment of a waste recycling system and the formation of a collection network is currently in progress in Serbia, marking an important element in establishing and improving the waste management system and ensuring the employment of a significant number of people.

Waste is primarily a municipal and health problem, and only then a resource. The service of collecting and disposing of the waste is managed by public utility companies owned by municipalities or is organised through strategic partnerships. Waste collection services cover between 25 and 100 per cent of the territory of some local governments, and it is estimated that an average of around 70 per cent of municipal waste is collected in Serbia in an organised way, which is 10 per cent more than in 2010, when the Waste Management Strategy was developed. These are only estimates, however, because Serbia still has no accurate data on the amount of municipal waste generated.

“Collection is organised mainly in urban areas, while rural areas are covered significantly less. The largest number of local governments have inadequate mechanisation and refuse collection vehicles, while separate waste collection (separation at source) is not organised, except sporadically, with the exception of packaging waste. The separate collection of waste is mainly conducted through the informal economy. The current level of recycling and utilisation of waste is insufficient,” warns Aleksandar Jovović, an expert in this field and professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Belgrade.

What is being done at the moment to improve the situation?

The establishment of a waste recycling system and the formation of a collection network is currently underway in Serbia, which is an important element in establishing and improving the waste management system and ensuring the employment of a significant number of people.

As described in the Strategies from 2003 and 2010, and in the proposal for a revised strategy that is still in operation, waste management is based on a regionally integrated management system. This means that multiple local governments combine to form a single technical region, building a common management centre that will cover the great treatment of more waste. Of the 26 regions for waste management envisaged by the Strategy, nine regions have yet to initiate activities on the preparation of planning and technical documentation, and there is also no regional waste management plan, while seven regions have planning documentation that has yet to be adopted.

An historic project for this country would be for all citizens to tour the EU’s waste management systems, which would show them that waste can be managed properly

Likewise, six regions still haven’t signed an inter-municipal agreement, and some municipalities have joined other regions in relations envisaged by the Strategy. A total of 19 per cent of waste, or 420,000 tonnes, is currently being disposed of in seven landfill sites constructed in accordance with EU regulations, while the rest is disposed of in non-sanitary landfills.

The completion of another three regional landfill sites is expected, which will increase the percentage of waste disposed of in sanitary landfills from 25 to 30 per cent. The remaining quantities of waste are disposed of in municipal non-sanitary landfills.
This shows that the disposal and treatment of municipal waste in landfills is, unfortunately, still the only treatment option.

How much time is needed, taking into consideration our financial possibilities, to bring waste management to a satisfactory level?

Fulfilling these obligations requires between three and 17 years, and is dependent on the requirements of specific EU directives. Of course, the most complex and most demanding directives apply to the entire waste management system and the rules governing waste disposal at landfill sites. In the accession negotiations stage, these deadlines will be negotiated, i.e. to seek EU approval to harmonise our system with that of the EU within this period.

Implementing requirements set in the EU accession process in the waste sector is aligned in the National Programme for the Adoption of the EU Acquis from 2014 to 2018, as well as in several national strategic documents, such as the Waste Management Strategy for the 2010-2019 period, the National Strategy for Approximation in the Field of Environmental Protection, the Strategy for Approximation in the Field of Waste Management from 2012 and the National Plan for Implementation of the Stockholm Convention.

What is Serbia’s potential revenue if part of municipal waste is recycled and part is used as an energy source?

The biggest gain from a regulated waste management system is a significant improvement in the quality of life, reducing illness and extending longevity. We should not forget that unregulated dumps are a hotbed of infection and disease, and igniting such sites is a source of the most toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic organic compounds, dioxins and furans, which represents a huge external cost to the state that is rarely taken into account in analyses.

About 2.5 million tonnes of municipal waste is currently generated in Serbia annually, or 340.7 kg per capita, or 0.93 kg daily. According to the morphological composition of waste in Serbia, on average almost half of municipal waste is biodegradable (1.68 million tonnes in 2014), that is to say, garden waste and waste from food processing and preparation. A significant proportion is comprised of plastic, with 12.3 per cent, and paper and cardboard, with a share of 9.6 per cent.

Other fractions, such as glass, metal, textiles, leather and the like, are represented from 1.5 to 4 per cent. Quantities of packaging waste are estimated at about 350 thousand tonnes.

If we take as an example the City of Belgrade, which generates approximately 1,500 tonnes of waste per day, then it can be estimated that about a third of waste consists of recyclable components, another third is a material that can be processed into fuel by appropriate treatment, while a third of the waste or even less would be disposed of in landfill sites, all of which certainly creates significant economic benefit.

What is the EU’s policy today, given that waste management systems are changing constantly?

The EU’s approach is based on hierarchical waste management, which sets certain priorities and promotes the reducing of waste generation, which thereby reduces the problem of waste at source. The principle of waste reduction encompasses initiatives for the introduction of cleaner technology and comprehensive campaigns to raise public awareness among the general population, and primarily in schools.

The EU’s Thematic Strategy on Waste aims to prevent the generation of waste and promote the use of waste as a resource, primarily to obtain secondary raw materials and energy. Although the waste management system is continuously improving in the EU, the European economy is still losing significant amounts of potential secondary raw materials, such as metals, wood, paper, glass, artificial materials and the like.

It is estimated that an average of around 70 per cent of municipal waste is collected in Serbia in an organised way, with about 2.5 million tonnes of municipal waste generated annually, or 340.7 kg per capita

Of the approximately 2.5 billion tonnes of waste generated in the EU during the course of 2010, about 36 per cent was recycled, while the rest was used for combustion or was dumped. However, it is estimated that approximately 600 million tonnes of that waste could be reused or recycled. The percentage of waste that is recycled in individual European countries moves from 10 to 65 per cent, while the percentage of waste dumped in landfill sites ranges from 10 to 90 per cent. Turning waste back into a resource is one of the key elements of the circular economy.

Do the four thousand or so illegal dumps in Serbia reflect neglect or an inefficient waste management system; and how does the EU deal with this problem?

It is actually irresponsible behaviour in managing municipal and construction waste that is one of the major causes of flooding in many places, as was the case recently and two years ago. In such instances, the problem spreads to the inappropriate storage of hazardous waste, which threatens to leak and cause a real environmental disaster. We have these illegal dumps because we have become careless and irresponsible in every aspect of life.

However, if the political will to solve the problem exists at all levels, then there will be a solution. The countries that are now our role models didn’t always behave properly, nor did we differ from them significantly thirty years ago. A historic project for this country would be for all citizens to tour the EU’s waste management systems, which would show them that waste can be managed properly.

Are there any grounds for the fear among citizens that factories for processing hazardous waste will pollute their environment?

The basic measure of the trust of citizens with regard to any government, and especially local government, would be better measured in the attitude towards projects in the field of waste treatment than in local elections. And that is not our speciality. Statements like “not in my backyard” and “not during my term” were not invented here, but rather in the cradle of waste management systems, in the UK. However, the trust of citizens in that and other such countries has been built up over time, while in our country and other similar ones it has collapsed.

Today there is almost none, regardless of which political structure we are talking about. Citizens are afraid and don’t want any form of waste treatment in the vicinity. The latest example is Gornji Milanovac and none acceptance of the construction of a glass recycling centre.

The fear of citizens has also led to the withdrawing of secured funds twice for the construction of a plant for the treatment of hazardous waste in Serbia. Citizens are less afraid of the facilities themselves but more afraid of its future management, irresponsibility and the risks that may arise due to irresponsible management.

However, the experience we have working in the very complex chemical-technological systems that existed in Serbia during the 1970s and ‘80s, coupled with the restoration of some school programmes and greater and more serious control of the operation of such facilities, almost certainly provide for reliable operations. After all, the ban on exports of hazardous waste, which will soon come into force in the EU, will force us to solve this problem ourselves.

Serbia has great potential in the production of energy from renewable sources – biomass. What are the prerequisites for increasing its use?

The government and relevant ministries in several mandates, as well as local governments, have done a lot to support programmes in the use of biomass for energy production, biofuels and bioliquids. The Republic of Serbia has set targets for the use of renewable energy sources by 2020, developed sector-based strategies in the fields of energy, agriculture, forestry and environment, adopted numerous regulations, prescribed incentives and exemptions, and simplified procedures in the fields of planning and construction. And, again, the results are modest. So, something is missing.

One of the reasons is that production is still expensive, even with the incentives, while a second reason is the lack of a biomass supply chain and the third reason is the continued forcing, at least unofficially, of fossil fuels. Implementation of the commitments obliged by the signing of the Treaty on the Establishing of the Energy community will certainly accelerate the process of increasing biomass use.

You’re part of the team that worked on the Second National Report and the First updated report of the Republic of Serbia according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Which measures for mitigating climate change in the waste sector have emerged from those documents

It should be noted that the waste sector is a relatively small source of GHG emissions compared to other sectors, but it represents significant potential in terms of reducing emissions. Projections of total emissions and GHG emissions for all GHG sectors, including the waste sector, were made through three scenarios: a basic scenario that doesn’t lead to improvement of the system, a scenario “with measures” and one “with additional measures”. Projections up to 2030 were ma, with cross-sections in 2015, 2020 and 2025, using the key sector-based strategic documents.

With the aim of reducing emissions and mitigating climate change in the sector, the scenario with measures envisages the improvement of waste management practices, including the reduction of biodegradable components of waste deposited in landfills and an increase in recycling.

The especially important and ambitious scenario “with additional measures” includes increasing the amount of municipal waste subjected to biological treatment. The thermal treatment of waste for heating purposes is envisaged only in major cities: Belgrade, Novi Sad and Niš. All of these measures actually represent potential projects and investments in the waste sector in the future.

Improving the waste management system is a major investment and one of the knock-on effects is an increase in utility costs. How can this increase in household costs be explained to citizens?

When it comes to improving the waste management system, as well as harmonising that system with the requirements of the EU, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the expected investment costs for the implementation of the most important directives in this sector amount to approximately a billion euros. The expected investment for the City of Belgrade alone is estimated at over €200 million.

Here it should be considered that the current tariffs/prices, which are below an economical level, don’t allow public utility companies to cover their costs. As such, they are unable to carry out investments in the construction of new facilities. On the basis of calculations of required investments, operating costs and the potential income generated by the new system, we will form the future price of services, but we must also consider the experiences of many cities around the world, which indicate that it is possible to implement an improved waste management system. It is necessary to ensure that the project is justified and sustainable, provided that the price of services is in line with household income, which in the framework of the OECD is 1.7 per cent.