Moscow Ships its Trash to its Neighbors, and They’re Fighting Back

Contemporary Moscow can often seem a glittery city of dreams — the Russian capital arguably more efficient, clean and well-run than many of its Western counterparts.  But behind the glamour lies an uncomfortable truth: Russia’s largest city is choking on garbage.     The city’s 12 million residents produce more than 7 million tons of waste per year — 20% of Russia’s entire output — according to government figures. Industrial waste raises that number even higher, and only a fraction of that amount is currently recycled.   For now, most ends up in places like Alexandrov, a picturesque historic town just a few hours’ drive from the capital that’s home to one of several dozen landfills that surround Moscow.  Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
FILE – In this photo taken April 20, 2018, garbage trucks unload the trash at the Volovichi landfill near Kolomna, Russia.Whichever way the wind blows really mattersA sudden shift in the wind in Alexandrov and suddenly, the acrid odor is inescapable.Residents told VOA that “like radiation,” Alexandrov’s landfill is ultimately something most residents see more than feel. “You can smell the landfill from miles way. You can’t breathe at all, ” said Alexander Kuyum, a father of two young boys who recalls growing up in an area that once looked like a 19th century pastoral painting.“The worst thing is, they’ve shipped all this garbage, and now want to ship even more,” he said.  Growing concerns over the landfill’s risks to public health led to the largest protest in recent memory in Alexandrov last December. About 5,000 people filled the local square and demanded the site be closed.  Similar scenes are playing out in dozens of towns across the country, as Russia confronts a trash crisis that has yet to develop effective garbage and recycling programs.  Yet public ire has focused on Moscow, in particular, for imposing its will — and waste — on poorer communities that are finally saying, enough.“I don’t want to leave,” Julia Gribnova, a young mother, said in an interview with VOA. “I’m not saying Moscow should have to live in squalor. I’m just saying that I don’t want them to ship it here.”Local activists fighting the landfill say they’re pegged as troublemakers, harassed by police and smeared on social media for merely wanting clean air in their own backyard.““I don’t want to run and join some protest movement,” said Vitaly Katasov, a young designer and father who joined in the movement. “But I’m not sure there are other options left. The authorities here don’t listen to us.”The lesson of ShestunOne need only look at FILE – A man throws a garbage bag into a trash box in a courtyard in Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg, Feb. 20, 2013.Reduce, recycle, reform  The Kremlin is under growing pressure over the trash wars.   Putin introduced new waste and recycling reforms this year, acknowledging widespread dissatisfaction with an issue that has been a constant feature of the Kremlin’s often stage-managed interactions with Russian voters.   How serious the reforms, and Putin’s intentions, remain a point of debate.  New government measures call for more incineration rather than recycling — a quick but pollutant-heavy solution criticized by environmentalists.  Moreover, the measures exempt major waste-producing cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg for now.   Trucks bearing urban waste continue to run to neighboring towns and municipalities.   Blue binsYet Moscow is, in its own way, pitching in.  The city recently unveiled new blue recycling bins at standard waste collection points near apartment buildings around the city.   As with much in the new Moscow, locals acknowledge the bins are stylish, but questioned their practicality.“I watch people recycling, but without sorting out anything,” said Natalya, a Moscow resident. “And I am not at all sure that my recyclables will go where they’re supposed to.”“The bins are there, but the labels aren’t exactly informative,” noted Ivan, another resident.  For now, Sobirator, a volunteer recycling center in one of Moscow’s industrial zones, is one of the few places where Muscovites can learn to recycle responsibly.“The problem we face is that there’s no trust from the residents that one can really put the recyclables there, and they’ll go where they’re supposed to,” explained Tatyana Vasilyeva of Sobirator.“The first time I came here, it was such a feeling of relief to know that this garbage won’t occupy someplace, somewhere in the ground, but will be recycled,” added Elena, a local photographer.  Back in Alexandrov, a few rare businesses like Brigantina see commerce in manufacturing products from recycled plastics and bottles.“I could employ 20 times the people if the government gave us support,” said Vladimir Nizamov, the company’s owner.Until then, Moscow’s trash mountains continue to grow, dragging Russians to the frontline of a fight it seems everyone wishes they could wipe away.