Waste of Our Times

When I think of the biggest problems humankind is currently facing, the thing that comes to mind is waste.

You can see it on the edge of the road, lying numb on river banks or in the middle of the forest. It’s useless to continue on bringing back these images to your mind. Instead, it’s useful to at least, try to create an image of the consequences of this human quirk.

You can see it on the edge of the road, lying numb on river banks or in the middle of the forest. It’s useless to continue on bringing back these images to your mind. Instead, it’s useful to at least, try to create an image of the consequences of this human quirk.

Globally, the main challenges of the 21st century are related to our consumption habits. According to a study (Worldwatch Institute, 2013), the amount of waste produced annually globally will double by 2025 amid growing welfare and urbanization, which means that instead of 1.3 billion tones/year of waste, humanity produces double, i.e. 2.6 billion. Also, although cities cover only 2% of the surface of the Planet, they generate over 70% of the total waste.

Why a human quirk you wonder? It’s simple biology.

We can easily say that waste is a manmade concept because there appears to be no such disposable product in nature. The waste product produced by a natural process or organism quickly becomes the raw product for other natural process or organism. In consequence, the processes of production and decomposition are well balanced and death provides support for a new life to flourish. What is commonly known as the ‘cycle of life’ represents nature’s strategy to ensure the stability and sustainability of natural systems.

The consequences of traditional waste disposal management have driven nations to rethink the way they dispose of garbage. A new approach was going to be applied, based on sustainable principles and environmentally friendly technologies. The historic Paris Agreement, a joint union of countries around the world to help prevent and fight climate change, was a starting point for the development of new technologies that help alleviate the burden humans put on the planet, waste included.  From this point the industry was going to have new principles to guide its work; to manage waste and not harm the environment. This new approach had flourished in European countries up to the point where public garbage bin will transmit data in real time and waste management companies are able to see when one it’s full and has to be discarded. This way, companies can make better use of their time and resources.

Things seem pretty clear that humanity had to reconsider its habits, but in practice, things are not that easy to achieve.

When it comes to re-shaping an established system, there are a lot of factors that can interfere with the smooth running of plans and the past tends to weight greatly on how the present develops. Western and Nordic European countries differ greatly from Eastern European countries in as much as the first developed faster than the later. The communist regime’s ruling had been based on exploiting people’s fears and while providing social security and these features remained deeply embedded into people’s heads even after 1989. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, citizens of Eastern European countries were left with two unconscious choices; true freedoms based on human rights, and use the new freedom to build forward for the future or disguised freedom based on the promises of a few opportunists, and live this freedom through the televised projection of it.

The end of the communist era has left Romanians with an insatiable thirst for what they had previously been denied.  Now the borders were open and Western culture was entering Romanian people’s homes through their social circle, radio, television and later, the Internet.

Then the country joined the European Union. Free trade made consumer goods cheaper and more accessible. Romania enjoyed the benefits but failed to fulfill the obligation of keeping updated waste management legislation, investing in infrastructure and educating the people.

One of the main challenges for the country is to improve compliance with EU waste and urban in wastewater legislations in order to meet the EU targets of the deadlines set out in the Accession Treaty. In fact, the country was taken to court by the European Commission last February for failing to close and rehabilitate 68 illegal landfills that pose a serious risk to human health and the environment.

Waste comes from two main sources.

On one hand, waste is produced at the household level, food leftovers, food packaging, you name it. On the other hand, industrial activities are leaving their mark on the environment by disposing of the materials and substances left behind by the production process.

The latest European report shows that in 2014, the total waste generated in the EU-28 by all economic activities and households amounted to 2 598 million tons.

The same report shows that Romanians throw away 254 kg per person each year, a little more than half the European average of 475 kg per person.

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The report also shows how waste is treated. In Romania most of the garbage – 82 per cent – goes to landfill which means the depositing of waste into or onto land in every urban settlement. Other options for treating waste include recycling, composting and incinerating.

As individuals, we may not always see past the disposing routine of taking out the trash and into the environmental threat of such a common practice.

Piling up a vast amount of trash has become a huge social problem as it leads serious risks to our surroundings, our health and the future of planet Earth because it causes pollution and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.

Chief among those problems, landfills bear a major responsibility for overheating our planet. When the food scraps, grass clippings, paper and other things that rot are buried deep in the ground, they decay in an oxygen-starved (or anaerobic) environment, which generates methane as a by-product of decomposition.

The major near-term threat to the health of those living around landfills probably comes from releases of toxic substances into the air carried by the wind as much as five miles from the site.

An iconic example of social problems involving city landfills is the case of Pata Rât near Cluj-Napoca.

Pata Rât is an area ten minutes’ drive from Cluj Napoca to the city’s waste dump. The main problem in Pata is the non-compliant disposal of waste which often causes fires in the area and its proximity to the city, which damages the air quality in the city and surrounding areas.

In addition to the environmental issue, Pata Rât is also a spatially segregated informal urban community located near the city landfill. There are approx. 300 poor, mostly Roma families living in four settlements after they have been forced out of the city center because the blocks of flats where they were living were demolished by authorities to make room for a new church.

[In fact, it is a common practice for Romanian authorities to displace Roma people out of their homes and villages and relocated closer to the dumps, but that’s another story.]

Over the years a symbiotic relationship has developed between the people and the landfill.

On one hand, people have to bare lousy living conditions and air quality, but on the other, the dump provides the only income source for these families. People at the landfill manage to recycle half of the garbage that arrives here, thus fulfilling a requirement of the European Union.

Over the years there have been many attempts to improve the lives of these families by various European organisations. A number of projects focusing on social inclusion touching on housing, employment, safety, education, and culture have involved the community.  Most of these projects are focused on integrating the people in the society, but no one is addressing the health and environmental issues caused by the garbage mountain.

The problems still persist. Authorities refuse to take the blame for the situation, and even if the dump was set to be closed in 2015, garbage continues to be stored at Pata.

The problem will only get worse, given the urbanisation phenomena, as more people are moving toCluj-Napoca each year there is going to be a greater amount of waste to be discarded nearby.

Industrial activities have also left their mark on Romanian landscapes.

A 2012 report of the Eurostat shows that industrial activities in Romania have generated 262.329 thousand tons of waste.

Additional to issues caused by general waste, industrial waste can leave marks on the genetic heritage of a landscape. This sort of waste often contains radioactive substances, which can affect the environment by modifying its structure through malign natural development.

The most illustrative example of the environmental impact of industrial activities is the case of Roşia Montană.

Roşia Montană is one of the most representative gold deposits in Europe with a long history of mining, about 2000 years. The known stocks are now equivalent to over 300 tons of gold and 1500 tons of silver. Due to some economic problems, however, all mining activities were stopped in 2006, and what remained in there are the environmental problems that Roşia Montană is facing today.

The damage to the environment is significant: 140 km of underground galleries, two quarries, and associated tailings dumps, two large tailings ponds that led to a substantial change in the landscape of the area. The main source of environmental pollution is, however, acidic water resulting from the exposure of sulphur-containing rocks to existing atmospheric conditions.

This process leads to the formation of sulphuric acid which dissolves heavy metals from rock. Heavy metals are easily transported into groundwater and surface water in the area, affecting in particular aquatic life and contaminating sediments along water courses.

Solutions are available every step of the way.

In October 2016, Romania included in the Waste Framework legislation the “Pay as you Throw” instrument to be implemented at national level, whenever it is technically and economically viable following the 2008/98/EC recommended language. Even if not mandatory, this event marks a historical milestone in the battle for an improved waste management system still based mostly on landfilling and opened the door to municipalities to adopt the instrument in local legislation and modify their commercial contract with the waste operator.  The first city in progress to adopt PAYT is Iasi (+350 000 inhabitants), followed by Oradea (+250 000 inhabitants) in April 2017.

The first solutions which are to be adopted in local legislation are the following:

  • Separate collection at source of three types of waste: recyclables, compostable/bio-waste and residual waste. The source collection will be programmed on different days for each type of waste category and the bio waste will be composted or converted in biogas;
  • introduction of the  “Pay as you Throw” system;

Funding is also being sought for the extension of the existing Municipal Waste Collection Center with a repair and resale centre for furniture, textiles, electronics and construction waste, a pioneering initiative in Romania.

The “zero waste” methodology has been adopted by 40 other small communities and cities including Târgu Lăpus, the first Romanian city to adopt the strategy in 2014.

Initiatives like this prove the power of legislation to improve the quality of life of all citizens and promote the power of a good example. Nevertheless, its’ the governments’ duty to make sure that this movement reaches all communities. It needs to promote the new approach on waste managing to children, parents, and grandparents. It needs to provide the tools and educative materials to change these generation’s harmful habits.

The adoption of new technologies goes hand in hand with a long-term vision on how the country needs to addresses the waste managing problem. The government needs to think ahead and construct strategies based on prevention to be able to cut the cost of negative externalities like health issues, land, air and water pollution or like we saw at Pata Rât, social exclusion.

A change in the social mindset is only achieved through education and the government must make a priority of educating citizens on such a life threatening social problem like poor waste disposal and management.

Anamaria Șerban

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