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Business: waste management in Latvia may become more expensive; government support is not enough

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RUThe sensitive question «Do you sort your waste?» is gradually becoming more popular in Latvia. But this also raises a no less important question – where to sort waste? Several politicians have already named Latvia a landfill country. The controversial matter of a package deposit system is presented to residents as a dessert – some call it overpriced decoration, others call it a vitally important system to help reduce plastic waste.

How does Latvia fare when compared to the rest of European Union – how far behind or ahead is it? Also, why is Latvia still worried that it will not be able to realize ambitious EU waste processing goals with its current government? Zaļā josta management board chairman Jānis Lapsa has agreed to explain the modern definition of the word ‘waste’ and the future of waste processing industry in an interview to BNN.

«Europe’s money will end eventually. Waste management tariffs may go up significantly»

Zaļā josta’s representative says that currently waste management companies have to face major challenges, such as lack of funding, to meet EU requirements in waste management. The money provided by Latvian government is not enough.

«The money allocated for the entire waste management industry, including funding from EU funds, is not enough for us to meet all commitments we have accepted as a member state of the European Union. This applies to such expensive processes like separation of biological waste before their burial in landfills and waste recycling. Latvia also needs to improve sorted waste collection and recycle this waste – there is not enough funding to achieve this goal.»

As for what is expected from the next government and if there is hope for funding increase, Lapsa was sceptical: «It is unlikely. European money is slowly running out for us. But the outcome will be this – to fulfil all EU requirements, waste processing tariffs will likely increase in Latvia, which will make residents’ wallets thinner if the government fails to find the funds to increase environment protection budget.»

He says EU has put up very ambitious goals for waste management, circulation in economy and products’ return in the life cycle: «I cannot imagine Latvia meeting these requirements under current funding».

According to him, the situation would be made easier if Latvia had implemented burying of only very expensive waste, whereas sorted waste collection would be an alternative – this would allow investing the difference into development of sorted waste.

«Nevertheless, there are relatively low landfill costs in Latvia. Because of that, it is impossible to cover the formation of sorted waste collection. This means that to develop this system, waste management companies need funding from the side. The same applies to storage and recycling of biological waste. Multi-million investments are needed for this. But it is impossible to secure such funds under current waste management tariffs.»

The current situation is such that EU co-financing is enough only for certain projects, says Lapsa. «Yes, if Latvia fails to implement EU’s required directives, there is a risk that the country may face sanctions. But even that does not mean Latvia will not have to perform its duties.»

The risk may become especially high in 2020, because funding for waste management industry is insufficient, but requirements from EU are sufficiently high. «In order to achieve EU requirements in 2020, waste management tariffs should be increased today. But there is a possibility of the Competition Council stepping in, saying that the service is inadequately high – but you can’t put the entire responsibility on the shoulders of businesses and expect things to get done. If businesses are forced to work from the existing market price, it is not possible for them to find funding to improve everything. This is why support from the government is needed,» Lapsa told BNN.

«There is always the possibility of someone trying to make money off waste dishonestly»

Several politicians have named Latvia a «landfill country». It is worth mentioning here that in 2017 LTV7 programme reported that hundreds of thousands tonnes of waste are brought to Latvia every year. Among this volume are also different types of dangerous waste. «Brits, Swedes and Germans all carry waste here. Although there are no restrictions within EU territory, the nature tax in Latvia is significantly below the average. It is cheaper to get rid of waste legally this way,» the programme reported.

Lapsa believes calling Latvia a landfill is a very populist claim. He adds this ‘title’ is exaggerated. «Cemex factory is a good example, as it receives probably the largest volume of waste in the country. This company is also fitted with the necessary filters to avoid creating additional load for the environment.»

«Electrical appliances are usually taken apart in Latvia – some parts are sent back for recycling, usually to other EU member states. With that, there is practically no residual pollution. This means the legal sector in Latvia should not have major stores of waste. This is because any waste brought to the country needs to be declared and registered – where it will be recycled and the delivery route to be used. There is always a possibility of someone trying to make money dishonestly by carrying waste here illegally. Nevertheless, I do not agree Latvia has become a landfill,» Lapsa continues.

Last year, there was a fire in some territory in Jurmala, where unknowns stored large volumes of plastic waste without permission from State Environment Service. The fire’s total area was 12,000 m2 or 1.2 ha. The fire itself was classified as very dangerous.

Cleanup procedures there cost the country around EUR 700,000. This amount was later enforced from SIA Prima M, which was responsible for managing said territory.

Lapsa says this particular case is an exception rather than the rule. «There was more or less mixed and unsorted plastic waste, which makes it waste, not raw materials.»

He says the problem of used tires in Latvia initially surfaced as a result of inadequate market supervision, when companies that do not provide tire recycling offered cheap tariffs, distorting this market. They did nothing to resolve this problem. «Currently this market has very promising tendencies, because there is now demand for products made from recycled tires. The problem in Latvia is that we have a historic surplus, because tires are not resources that can be taken, recycled and sold. Money should follow tires in order to finance recycling. If there is not enough money, problems start taking shape in the form of enormous piles of tires. The current volume of tires is handled thanks to successful recycling.»

Latvia still tries to handle the «waste heritage» left from the Soviet Union

The definition of waste has changed. It is being hidden from people. Nevertheless, waste sorted by people should be called secondary raw materials, because they are used to manufacture new products, says Lapsa.

«Waste represents raw materials. This waste provides plastic, metal, glass – materials we cannot get from mixed, dirty plastic; wet paper; wood; etc. We cannot manufacture products from that, but we can produce fuel and replace fossil fuel with waste – this way the total heating fuel balance does not increase.»

Lapsa says this example is present around the world. «If we take Scandinavian countries as an example, they have a lot of boiler houses that use waste as fuel. Unlike Latvia, they are already running low on waste. They import waste, recycle it, and use them as raw materials. This means the word ‘waste’ has lost its meaning somewhat.»

He says that sorted waste – cleat PT bottles and different polymer cloths – are already used for production of new products. «If we look at it from a «green perspective», this is exactly our goal – recycling materials and returning them to circulation in secondary form. This is the direction Europe has taken – transition circulation economy from «use and throw away» approach to «process, recycle and return to circulation». Waste sorting does make work easier for management companies,» says Lapsa.

«We have to keep in mind that Latvia has been presented with specific requirements – there are parameters we need to reach. The way residents sort their waste is one of the ways to help reach the desired level. Nevertheless, it is important to agree on the way waste collection is organized. Is it present in the entire country? Does every region have a different kind? Do we collect waste in cities differently? What is more economical – making separate containers for glass, polymers and paper or have one container for polymers, paper and metal packaging, but leave glass in a separate container?» Lapsa shares his thoughts.

He adds that any waste collected as part of the sorted waste system still needs to be re-sorted again by hand.

«We have to understand that sorted waste collection is performed by us, the residents. Quality and volume collected for sorting depends on us. The problem in Latvia is people’s attitude – why should I do it if my neighbours don’t? In cases when a person decides to pour soup in sorted waste and expect no one will notice we are forced to re-sort waste again. In 30-50% of cases we find household waste in containers intended for sorted waste.»

«But if we look at the last 15-20 years, when someone asked the question ‘why should be sort waste’, this question has transformed into ‘where do we sort waste».  But his is slowly changing as waste-sorting infrastructure is slowly improving,’ says Lapsa.

«If we look at it from society’s perspective, the cheapest way to manage waste is by not sorting it – just burying it in a landfill. This is how it was done in the Soviet Union – toss it in the pile and forget about it. Unfortunately, we have yet to get rid of this heritage in Latvia, and this includes the tar ponds in Inčukalns. Such sights only make nature look grim.»

Lapsa adds that there are landfills in Latvia where it is possible to prevent waste ending up in ground water.

«Do we really have to pay for everything in life, or should we at least get something back without feeling like pigs?»

The topic of package deposit system’s implementation has been discussed for a long time in Latvia. Our neighbours already have it, but Latvia is lagging behind, it seems. Political parties have yet to reach an agreement on this system’s implementation in Latvia.

According to Lapsa, the deposit system is only a small part of the entire waste management system in Latvia. He says implementation of this system would help a small group of products – PET bottles.

«Bottles, including aluminium cans and glass bottles, are already collected well enough»

Zaļā josta representative does not deny that implementation of a deposit system, PET bottles would no longer be stuffed everywhere. «Bottles would end up right back on production lines headed for recycling. However, this collection system will likely cost a pretty penny. It may seem advanced for residents at first – hand over a bottle and receive some money back. However, it will not change much. We pay for the deposit system by buying the bottle. In the end, it is just a different way to collect waste,» says Lapsa.

It is worth mentioning hat several green organizations are in favour of the deposit system. Zaļā brīvība association mentions on its website that it is a very effective system that can help recover up to 90% of packaging materials. «This system is already active in many countries, including Estonia and Lithuania. Latvian producers of beverages, however, believe it is too expensive and claim consumers will have to pay 5 cents for each bottle collected. Lithuania’s experience shows that waste management costs are much lower (1 cent for can, 3 cents for PET bottle and 4 cents for glass bottle). In addition, we already pay producers for collection of used packages. Unfortunately, only a small portion is collected and returned to circulation,» the association notes.

Zaļā brīvība also notes that under the new system it will be possible to collect glass, plastic and aluminium packaging for drinks at the same time and receive back the paid deposit in exchange. This system would cover 12% of glass bottles, 30% of primary plastic packaging and 43% of primary metal packaging.

It will still be necessary to sort all other waste. But the association notes that people will thereby be motivated to sort waste. It will also help preserve precious resources from burial and make Latvia an overall cleaner place.

Jānis Lapsa comments: «Who exactly prohibits us from putting waste in containers? We, Zaļā josta, already work to educate people that it is necessary to sort waste – they should be put in the right place – and that resources should be preserved. Do we really have to pay for everything in life, or should we at least get something back without feeling like pigs? Why don’t people change their mindset and simply become more attentive when it comes to sorting waste?»

He mentions the following example: «A person has a private home. He has to pay a couple of euros a month for a waste container. But the person is not ok with paying and instead carries his waste to apartment buildings, where someone else will pay for waste management. Meanwhile this same person will have paid a lot more for the deposit system by regularly purchasing drinks than he has for his container. This is human duality – we might have this system, and we are happy to pay, but now he refuses to pay for household waste container.»

«To set up containers, stores are required to invest a considerable amount of money. This is no problem for small stores, whereas smaller ones may be in trouble. The container takes up space and requires additional investments. This means there are some downsides for the deposit system,» Lapsa continues.

He continues: «We have to look at this closely – a rich country can spend its money any way it likes. But we remain a country with one of the lowest landfill tariffs. If around EUR 30 million was invested in sorted waste collection and education of residents, then it would be possible to achieve a better result. This is about us being ready to invest in an expensive deposit system simply because it sounds like a good idea. At the same time, however, the funding available to us is insufficient to develop this system to a desirable level.»

It should be said that Lithuanian Seimas deputy and former head of Lithuanian Green Party Linas Balsys told BNN in an interview that in Lithuania the deposit system has been working almost flawlessly since its initial implementation. «Different estimates show that the volume of deposited bottles is between 70% and 90% of all sold drinks,» said the representative of Lituania’s parliament.

Lapsa, meanwhile, is concerned about the lack of far-sight of Latvia’s waste policy. «Waste management is not just a business – is a public service performing which does not always guarantee profits for businesses. We fulfil EU requirements on behalf of Latvia. We also create infrastructure for residents – all this presents costs, not revenue,» says Lapsa.

He says companies cannot be asked to always cover everything from their own pocket, because that would have no economic justification. «There should be external funding. It is important to ensure state financial support is sufficient and regulations are welcoming for us to be able to implement those projects. Problems may arise when projects are unnecessarily complex, as we’ve seen in previous years. Especially when money remains unused because officials established such high requirements that no-one can implement the desired project,» said Lapsa.


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