Romania buckles under its own garbage even as it imports plastic waste for recycling

  • Living
  • Saturday, 12 Sep 2020

The Ros family lives near a huge garbage dump on the outskirts of the Romanian capital. Photos: dpa

Romania's capital city might be hours from the coast, but on warm nights, the seagulls that flock over the city give it a seaside feel. They, as well as thousands of crows, are here for the garbage that piles up in Chiajna, on the outskirts of Bucharest.

Near the huge rubbish dump, Viorica Ros, 67, lives with her children and grandchildren. It's a bit cramped, as three families with eight children live in two little houses. Ros moved here back in 1982, when she could look out across kilometres of green meadows, and raised tomatoes and cucumbers at a communal farm close by.

The family voted in favour of a 36ha project planned here in 1999, assuming it would be a park. After all, the law stipulates that landfill sites must be at least a kilometre away from people's homes.

The smell from the rubbish dump is all-pervading. "It stinks especially early in the morning," says Ros. She and her family eventually got used to the constant odour, but it took time.

The landfill site is filled not only with garbage from the capital; trash is shipped here from all over the country's south.Plastic bottles on the assembly line at the Greentech recycling factory.Plastic bottles on the assembly line at the Greentech recycling factory.

On cloudy days, the stench reaches as far as the airport, according to Constantin Damov, president of Green Group, a recycling company.

He is campaigning for such dumps to be outlawed, arguing that the trash that lands here – and in the country's forests and rivers – is actually a valuable resource, packed with raw materials that should be recycled instead.

Damov's company recycles plastic, and his plant in the south-eastern city of Buzau processes 100,000 tonnes of bottles and other plastic waste each year. The Green Group's other plants in Slovakia and Lithuania process a further 50,000 tonnes.

Most of the plastic recycled in Romania is bought from abroad, Damov says, as the country does not separate trash for recycling.

"If Romania collected all of its plastic waste separately, we wouldn't have to import this, and could double our production capacity," he says. Currently, the country only recycles 20% of its own plastics. Damov says that if trash was more effectively separated, this would help the environment as well as make money.

"It's amazing, but plastic granulate – that's plastic rubbish that's cleaned and ground up – costs two-and-a-half times the price of wheat," he says.

This market is set to grow under European Union regulations stipulating plastic bottles are to be made up of 25% recycled plastic by 2025.Plastic waste is processed at the Greentech recycling factory.Plastic waste is processed at the Greentech recycling factory.

Plastic granulate already costs 30% more than plastics made from oil.

Damov, who imports plastic from Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and Greece, speaks of material, rather than rubbish.

Romania has been making a name for itself as a recycler of plastic ever since China altered its rules for trash imports in 2018.

However, as one spokesman for a German association for secondary waste and raw materials says, Romania, as well as other Eastern European countries upping their recycling game, can't replace China.

Germany imports waste from Eastern Europe as well as exports it, sending 48,904 tonnes of trash to Eastern Europe in 2018 while shipping in 332,557 tonnes, according to the Federal Environment Agency. That's due to different capacities for recycling and waste incineration, and different regulations governing landfill throughout Europe.

Such sites have long been banned in Germany, while other countries allow them till 2030.An employee holding processed plastic at the factory.An employee holding processed plastic at the factory.

For Romania, there is no prospect for an end to landfill sites, thanks to decisions made by previous governments, says Environment Minister Costel Alexe, in office since Nov 2019.

So far, his ministry has presented a feasibility study looking at introducing a bottle deposit system in Romania.

Alexe wants half of the country's waste to be separated by the end of the year so that it can be recycled, he told news site

The trouble is that this could lead to higher charges for collecting waste, which most politicians would probably oppose.

Romanians are gradually getting used to the idea of separating their rubbish. In one Bucharest district, people who separate dry and wet waste don't have to pay a rubbish collection fee. However, Damov says this doesn't go far enough, as it only allows seven per cent of the trash collected to be recycled.

Ros and her family are placing their hopes in a lawsuit by a nearby borough against the company that runs the landfill site.

The lawsuit addresses emissions created when gas from the site is processed into electricity, and also calls for clarification on the question of whether the site is located on private property.

The Bucharest City Council has ended its contract with the operator already, but the landfill site is set to remain in use until 2028. – dpa

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