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21 December, 2017

Waste management reform: A non-disposable issue

How the refusal to recycle waste ruins Ukraine

Ukrainian communities, especially rural ones, have few opportunities to safely dispose of waste. Waste collection and treatment in isolated areas is challenging given the cost of transporting waste to treatment facilities. This has resulted in toxic, unsafe waste heaps that continue to grow after years of illegal dumping. Critical water supplies got poisoned and tracts of farmland became unsafe for crops.

Ukraine produces 45 million m3 of waste per year – roughly 50 full Olympic-size swimming pools per day. A mere 6% of this waste is recycled, a shockingly low amount compared to EU countries’ average of 40% of municipal solid waste (and targeting 65% by 2030). Much of Ukraine’s waste is spread across 7,000 legal landfills, a number dwarfed by an alleged 35,000 illegal dumpsites. These illicit sites are used by upwards of 22% of the 45 million Ukrainians; there is no accounting for waste indifferently strewn alongside roadsides, in forests or wherever convenient. Unofficial and illegal landfills pose a major threat to human health and the environment, deteriorating the quality of drinking water, polluting the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on the sanitary and hygienic conditions of soil.

Lviv, a picturesque city in Western Ukraine, starkly illustrates the urgency of the problem. A 33-hectare landfill created in the 1960s caught fire in 2016 spreading acrid fumes throughout the area. Following the landfill’s closure, the city was swamped with litter, pressurising local authorities to find alternatives.

How can Ukraine address such a complex issue?

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Greater and faster policy-level progress is crucial. The National Waste Strategy was adopted in November 2017. The next step will be to ensure the Strategy is effectively carried out with the full participation of all relevant actors.  Notably, Ukraine needs to continue moving forward on integrating and adopting EU laws on waste management as part of the EU-Ukraine association agreement.  Such policies should strongly capitalise on what has proven successful in Europe, such as the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), as included in the National Waste Strategy. The EPR allocates responsibility to manufacturers for the return of products, their recycling and final disposal.

Waste collection charges need to guarantee a sustainable waste management system. Currently at 0.35 % of monthly household charges, current household waste collection charge is approximately US $1 for a family of four in a 2-bedroom apartment. This amount does not cover waste management providers’ basic operating costs. Policymakers should increase the waste collection charge to the global average of 1 % of monthly household charges, as it is currently under discussion.

Developing an efficient and effective/functional waste management system in Ukraine will require assembling robust and reliable baseline data on features such as waste composition, quantities, sector breakdowns and geographic distribution. A high-quality comprehensive dataset is also necessary to attract private-sector interest for the market potential of waste management. Adequate policies and legislation are urgently needed to develop adequate data and research capacity in Ukraine.

A favourable market environment is crucially important to attract private sector investment - which could develop the necessary infrastructure for waste collection and treatment. Ukraine needs more sanitary landfills meeting technical standards to isolate waste from communities – and water supplies – until it safely degrades.  Another option, Waste to Energy (WtE), is a widely-adopted solution to waste management. Generating energy and/or heat from the primary treatment of waste (i.e. through burning), it is put to particularly effective use in Europe. For example, Sweden incinerates over 50 % of its waste for energy; Switzerland converts 120,000 tonnes of municipal waste into 63 gigawatts of electricity and 144 gigawatt-hours of district heating.

Developing WtE infrastructure in Ukraine, however, will not only require a paradigm shift in waste handling, to separate waste into appropriate streams, but also billions of dollars of investments. Public-private partnerships and support could help secure such investments. Engagement with the private sector will depend on progressive policies that are underpinned by transparency and a regulated, functional free market.

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A more favourable policy environment would help small waste-management businesses to develop. For example, GaIPET is a plastic recycling business based in the outskirts of Lviv. The company purchases PET plastic bottles and converts them into pellets to make jacket stuffing, plastic vials and other products. If collection was more widespread, this company could increase production by two thirds. By increasing the number of PET collection points, making it easier and more convenient for the public to access them, instituting a deposit-refund system for plastic bottles, and changing legislation to enforce recycling of PET plastics, amounts collected would certainly go up.

Finally, to supplement infrastructure investments, Ukraine needs to build public awareness of the waste management problem and promote a reduce-reuse-recycle culture in households and businesses. To effectively implement the National Waste Strategy, the public must be educated on the need for recycling – and how to do it, for example, which materials can be recycled or the benefits of separating non-hazardous organic waste for fertilizer. To reap the maximum benefits of a recycling system, the public must be fully engaged, understand how the system works, and trust that their recycling efforts are not in vain.

The United Nations Development Programme has long been supporting Ukraine to help improve service provision and living conditions and make an actual difference in people’s lives. When talking about waste management, UNDP can leverage its strong community presence throughout Ukraine, while bringing its global experience to speed up reforms in the waste management sector in Ukraine.

Waste-related challenges, as environmental problems in general, double as opportunities - for example to push forward the green economy agenda, providing a means for Ukrainians to improve their standard of living, as well as lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty. Sustainable change requires a holistic approach including bold policy, education, infrastructure and incentives and disincentives. Collective commitment is needed from all partners: government, private sector, civil society, and the wider public - not to mention, a continuation of the battle against corruption that risks to undermine progress. In spite of the challenges, Ukraine can make substantial progress – but only if it finds dedication and creativity to address its waste management problems.

Blerta Cela is Deputy Country Director Programmes, UNDP

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