The city of Moscow is finally starting to do something about protecting its environment. Photo: iStock

Russia has been notorious for its poor recycling rates and massive landfills. But growing concerns about climate change and public protests may have finally influenced some positive changes. And the so-called “waste reform” is currently driven by joint state and corporate efforts.

Available data show that more than 90% or about 70 million tons of waste in Russia is brought to landfills every year. In comparison, in Germany a total of 68% of municipal waste is recycled.

In Russia, every year the total area of waste disposal sites grows by 400,000 hectares, and by last year it totaled 4 million hectares, or the size of the Netherlands.

These numbers are some of the largest in the Global North and point to predominantly ineffective recycling patterns.

The country’s landfills are composed of 34% food, 19% paper, 14% polymers, 12% glass and 6% wood. Russia is also responsible for 15% of all flared associated petroleum gas (APG), which is a byproduct of oil exploration.

Part of the problem comes from the country’s historical legacies and geography. As the world’s biggest country, Russia has never experienced a shortage of land. In addition, the Soviet legacy of decades of shortages of consumer goods contributed to the situation where the population and authorities became confident that massive territory could hedge Russia against pollution.

But the situation has started to change in recent years. The city of Moscow and the surrounding region are the country’s two major polluters. Both also boast the highest standards of living and fastest-growing populations. And both have been struggling with waste management.

In January, Moscow started rolling out its first citywide recycling scheme to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. Officials believe it will lead to more than 50% of waste being recycled, while currently around 88% goes to landfill.

In 2018, the Russian government introduced a national Ecology Project that set a recycling target of 36% of municipal solid waste (MSW) by 2024. It also aims to eliminate unauthorized landfills in urban areas by the same year.

The so-called “waste reform” seeks to expand the use of incinerators and introduce eco-technology parks.

The new waste legislation authorized Russia’s federal authorities to set uniform requirements for MSW treatment, recycling and disposal facilities. In 2019 a public company, the “Russian Environmental Operator,” was established to coordinate the activities of regional operators and ensure the implementation of MSW treatment. The entity is authorized to develop a federal waste-management scheme and to review territorial waste.

According to the strategy for the development of the waste industry, in 2030 up to 80% of all waste will be sent for recycling.

The Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade believes that it is the creation of eco-technology parks that will largely contribute to the implementation of the strategy. The parks started to appear in 2019, and are described as clusters of enterprises designed for sorting, processing and disposal of waste.

In order to stimulate businesses to enter such clusters and create new factories, the state has launched subsidies for interest payments on loans, as well as compensating part of the direct construction costs.

State initiatives are not the only forces that are breaking the country’s recycling stalemate. Many Russian corporations have also been actively participating in the transition.

Last month, Russian state media reported that plants for processing plastic waste will be built by Rostec, one of the largest industrial and state-run corporations in Russia, on the territory of waste-sorting complexes across Moscow. The first two plants will appear as early as 2022.

Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical company, plans to increase by 50% investments in research and development aimed at processing polymer waste and involving renewable sources of raw materials.

It is also striving to build an effective system of interaction on sustainable development and the involvement of recyclable materials in polymer production. In particular, Sibur is implementing such a project for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic widely used in packaging and drink containers.

The company has also signed a cooperation agreement with state ministries. The investment project provides for installing equipment to treat and sort PET flakes, which will make it possible to feed the recycled feedstock into production lines.

Last year, M.Video-Eldorado, the largest Russian consumer-electronics retail chain, launched the largest project in the country for the permanent collection and recycling of household appliances and electronics. The company seeks to provide a full cycle of collection and recycling of equipment with a minimum impact on the environment.

All in all, this justifies cautious optimism about Russia tacitly embracing more responsible behavior toward its environment.

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Dmitriy Frolovskiy

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy. His writings have been featured in Foreign Policy, The Hill, the Carnegie Moscow Center blog, Al Jazeera and others.