Sulfuric holes in housing and public utilities

We seem to be doing the right thing. We have started a reform in the area of waste management. We have introduced the environmental charge intended to become a solid waste disposal fee. We have invented ecology and technology parks processing wastes using the most advanced technologies, we are going to produce power-operated mobile facilities for waste recycling. Still, something has “gone off” at the next landfill site. And again — a moment of bewilderment. What are we doing wrong?

A scuffle in Volokolamsk

… On the 21st of March, in the morning, children from various schools were taken to the Volokolamsk regional hospital with symptoms of severe poisoning. Residents immediately linked the poisoning with another release of a “landfill gas” which occurred at the Yadrovo landfill site located near Volokolamsk. On that day, the intensity of hydrogen-sulfide odor just went off the scale.

Sulfuric holes in housing and public utilities

This landfill site has been emitting gases for a long time now. Time and again the town has been covered with a cloud of noxious smells coming out of the suburban dump. Residents of Volokolamsk has been demanding the closure of the landfill site for several months, flocking to the streets and protesting. This time, their patience has run out. Thousands of people — including parents of the poisoned children — have rallied near the local hospital demanding to bring to a close the issue of the Yadrovo landfill shutdown.

The authorities tried to assure the public that there had been no excess noxious substances in the air of Volokolamsk. They say that all this is bogus stories of the town’s residents. Meanwhile, at the request of a former presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who arrived on the site right after the incident took place, water and air samples were taken in the city. According to the results of an urgent chemical analysis, a 10-fold excess of the maximum permissible concentration of metals was recorded in tap water, while the concentration of arsenic exceeded the norm by 16 times and that of hydrogen sulfide — by 67 times. One of the hospital’s doctors, who somehow managed to escape pressure from the authorities, diagnosed the affected child with the “effects of the exposure to an unknown gas.”

In Russia, there is nowhere to take trash, is it?  

Ironically, all of these dramatic events occurred just before the opening of the Ecology International Forum at the Congress Park Radisson Royal. Its participants including multiple representatives of authority had no choice but to answer numerous questions from reporters, trying to explain what had happened. Particularly as it was the topic of handling solid wastes that the panel held by the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation was discussing at the time.

— The situation is such that sometimes there is just nowhere to take wastes, — Director General of the Housing, Utilities, and Urban Environment Association, Alexey Makrushin, admitted. — We are largely lacking infrastructure in terms of garbage collection and processing. It is not necessary that such projects are implemented by regional operators. There may be, for instance, concession agreements for the construction of waste landfill sites and waste recycling complexes. And yet, all this needs to be elaborated rather than being put into practice in a hurry. Otherwise, we will continue to come across the situations similar to those observed in the Moscow region.

According to Aleksey Makrushin, public hearings should be held on the issue of spatial layout plans for future landfills. It is essential to tell people honestly and in detail about what and where is planned to be established. But most importantly, residents of those areas, where new landfills are to be built, should get something in return.

‘At sites where facilities that negatively affect the environment are under construction’, the official continued, ‘a compensation mechanism should be created. Pollution charges prescribed by the 458th federal law should be paid into the local budget. These payments may be used to compensate to the community for the inconvenience caused. To repair a hospital, build a kindergarten or recultivate the existing dumping site.

The official immediately made a reservation, though. The pollution charge should be reduced. On the one hand, this will curb tariffs, but then again, will entail considerable hardship in terms of financing such “compensatory” programs.

There are military training areas but no landfill sites

One of the hot buttons is recultivation of landfills. This is an expensive business and, usually, such operations are conducted only when financed from the budget. Private businessmen typically do not take on such a “back-breaking” work. As a result, all the money intended for the construction of new landfills that we badly need are to cover the expenses of eliminating the accumulated environmental damage.

‘Some people hoped that the funds allocated by the government would go to a new infrastructure but, unfortunately, while we are raising money for a new one, the old one goes out of operation,’ explained Albina Dudareva, head of the Ecology and Environmental Protection Commission at the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. ‘Again, it is necessary to eliminate the accumulated environmental damage. And It just goes round and round. And there are no more new facilities than there were before’.

Before garbage is taken to a landfill, it needs to be sorted. And this is where we still have great problems. However, by 2030, the volume of garbage being sorted is planned to be increased from 8% to 80%. So that not a single ton of household waste could get to a landfill without selection. It is expected that an end product made from recycled materials will be necessarily obtained at the output.

Under the new strategy, as early as by the end of this year, the amount of waste burial should be halved — this is about not just household wastes but industrial ones as well. And this is also about creating for this purpose a Russian industry producing waste processing equipment. Furthermore, this equipment should be in demand not only in the Russian market but also abroad.

Well, indeed, these are ambitious plans. But as always, there are more questions than answers.

‘Today, sham companies are often engaged in a household waste disposal. They have absolutely no interest in extracting a useful fraction from recyclable materials and making some products out of it’, ponders Roman Kuprin, Deputy Director of the Metallurgy and Materials Department at the Industry and Trade Ministry. ‘And if a local enterprise starts to do this, it typically uses expensive wastes — paper, metal or some plastic — as secondary raw materials for such extractions, something that can recoup the cost of utilization. However, this is not more than 10% of a total amount of waste!’

In order to put things right in the area of waste sorting and recycling, the Industry and Trade Ministry has launched its official project, within the framework of which 43 high-tech waste sorting facilities are planned to be produced by the end of 2025, which should substantially increase the amount of useful fractions’ selection.

Besides, there are small so-called pyrolysis plants for garbage processing that, where there is a demand, can be installed in the vicinity of small-sized municipalities.

Retelling doesn't make a fable more compelling

Some people propose waste incineration plants as an alternative to landfills. Indeed, there are such facilities in many countries. For instance, in France, unauthorized dumps is the long-forgotten past (we covered this issue in an interview with Christian Levy, General Inspector of the Environment and Sustainable Development of the French Ministry of Ecology). Dozens of rubbish recycling enterprises have been built there. According to some reports, the French were negotiating selling these technologies to us as well. However, opposing opinion should also be taken into account: a number of experts suppose that the environmental damage inflicted by such enterprises is greater than the benefits they bring.

‘Whatever wonderful schemes we create, whatever programs we develop, ultimately, it is all about a human factor,’ said Alexander Zakondyrin, Chairman of the Alliance of Greens, the head of the Expert Council at the Association of the Moscow Region’s Ecosystem, and a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. ‘What is needed for establishing a sound infrastructure for waste recycling? Two things: a plot of land and money, investments. Basically, that’s it. Let's say that now we are told about the benefits of waste incineration plants’, the Chairman of the Alliance of Greens continues. ‘Well, there is such technology, a heat treatment of garbage. Now we ask a question: “Who wants to live in the vicinity of a waste incineration plant?” No one. “Who wants to live near a dump?” No one is willing to live next to a dump. Who wants to live in the vicinity of a waste sorting factory so that dump trucks drive by their houses? No one is willing to live there.

If we are to get a vote of confidence for this system, we need to create positive examples. For instance, to build that same incineration plant — but at the sites without residential communities in the vicinity. Yes, this will make certain problems with logistics: perhaps, garbage will have to be transported by rail rather than road. Instead, we will get a visual proof of the environmental safety of the applied technology. An independent inspector will come and say: everything is O.K, no exhausts have been detected.

Otherwise, Alexander supposes, there will be no confidence in such projects. Instead, we will find ourselves in a situation similar to that in Volokolamsk. One can make hundreds of impressive-looking presentations but nothing will change without investments ensuring trust-based relations with people who live in environmentally hazardous areas.

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