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Russia’s Trash Problem: An Opportunity Ilya Plekhanov, Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s Trash Problem: An Opportunity

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Over the past year, protests have been springing up all over Russia. Their grievance? Trash.

These protests continued on April 7, 2019, when two to three thousand Russians organized in the far-north oblast of Arkhangelsk to protest the Russian government’s plan to begin shipping Moscow’s trash to a newly constructed landfill in the region. Previously, upwards of 30,000 have protested this issue there. This time, however, these protestors called for their governor, Igor Orlov, to resign. Protestors in the neighboring republic of Komi did the same.

The residents of these regions feel victimized by a government plan to construct new “ecotechnoparks,” or trash storage facilities, nearby. This plan is a result of the “‘catastrophic’ overflows” occurring in Soviet-era dumps in the Moscow region. Residents there began protesting the continued use of these dumps in June 2018, citing the “the hospitalizations of nearly 60 children” as a result of the noxious fumes emanating from a nearby landfill—“the strained dumps were putting at risk the health of 17 million Russians.”

The federal government responded with a plan to begin packaging the 6.6 million tons of trash that Moscow produces—about one fifth of the country’s total waste production—and sending it to what the government has dubbed “ecotechnoparks” in regions like Arkhangelsk. The facility being constructed in Arkhangelsk adjacent the Shies train station will reportedly be able to take in 500,000 tons of trash a year, storing it for 20 years. The plan doesn’t specify what will happen with the trash in the long term.

Instead of creating a sustainable plan, the Russian government is simply kicking the can down the road.

The protestors in Arkhangelsk and other regions outside Moscow have called for a more sustainable solution. But according to legislation signed by Putin in 2014, reducing waste and recycling are of the highest priority in Russia. The clear discrepancy between this policy and today’s reality is resultant of the consistent rent-seeking attitude of Russian policymakers—according to Kuznetsov from the Center for Ecological Initiatives, “Most regions have a standard figure for each person’s annual waste production and budget allocated to dealing with it…If the standard production per person is lowered, then the authorities will earn less money.”

While avoiding true sustainability, the Russian government has somewhat embraced European technology in the specifics of its new plan for waste management. Sweden-based company Flexus Balasystem is providing Russia with baling machines that compact the trash and put it into polyethylene sacks which ultimately make transportation cheaper. The Russians plan on using these same sacks for long-term storage, which the company has made clear is not their intended purpose—”clients typically use the system for ‘transportation and short-term storage before processing the waste or using it to create energy.’”

Environmental issues and climate change may not directly affect the policymakers that the Russian government centers itself on, but these issues have an incredibly significant impact on the people in far-off regions of Russia. Increasing numbers of protests and continued regional governors’ solidarity with the Kremlin’s short-sighted plans may be the beginning of the long road to a hard realization for Russian authorities: sustainable policies are necessary for the continued support of your government.

When it comes to protesting, Russians tend to focus on specific issues rather than on general principles, and since it appears the impact of inefficient waste removal has become immediate, Russian governments should expect an increasing amount of civil unrest in the future.[1] Sustained unrest over these issues could contribute to discomfort for Putin, considering the changes similar issue-based protests forced him to make regarding pension reform.

This waste removal problem presents an opportunity for coordination between the U.S. and Russia, both on an intergovernmental level and a public diplomacy level. Considering that China isn’t buying the U.S.’s trash anymore, there is an incentive for leaders to team up and aspire towards semi-solutions similar to those reached in India or France, possibly through intergovernmental networking.

Also, Russians are prioritizing their environmental health, even over their right to a fair trial. Therefore, the United States may have an opportunity to institute a concentrated public diplomacy-based effort to understand their grievances and collaborate on potential solutions. However, due to the relatively closed nature of Russian policymaking, it is vital that both fronts are utilized—cooperation will have to occur at both the government and public levels if any progress is to be made.

(Alfred Evans, “Property and Protests: The Struggle Over the Renovation of Housing in Moscow,” Russian Politics 3 (2018): 548-576.)