City Garbage Plan Meets Hot Resistance

MTA program aims to reduce garbage in landfills, like this one northwest of Moscow, by turning much of it into ash.
On the best of days, the incinerator outside Olga Lipina's apartment in Kozhukhovo emits only puffs of white smoke. On the worst, the emissions here in Moscow's eastern outskirts can span the rainbow to pink and beyond.

Lipina, who received her apartment in 2006 as part of the "Young Family" subsidized-housing program, is fed up. She plans to sell her apartment and move as soon as possible.

"We don't open the windows because of the smell," she said. "They should not place incinerators near neighborhoods like ours, where there are more children than adults."

Under City Hall's new waste management plan, there could soon be more neighborhoods like Lipina's throughout the city.

Late last month, Mayor Yury Luzhkov quietly signed a decree ordering the construction of six new incinerators inside the city limits before 2012. Together with the four existing facilities, they will burn over 3 million tons of garbage per year, operating in every district of the city except the center.

The plan is estimated to cost 60 billion rubles, or $2.5 billion, and it will place huge smokestacks near some of Moscow's greenest areas.

Moscow already ranks among the world's most polluted cities. In 2007, Mercer Human Resource Consulting listed Moscow as the world's 14th-dirtiest city, worse than New Delhi but slightly better than ecological disaster zones like Mexico City and Baku.

City Hall and representatives of the incineration industry have defended the program as the only way of coping with a rapid growth in the volume of solid waste, driven by rising wages and increased consumption. Critics have lambasted the program as dangerous, outdated and needlessly expensive.

"It is an ancient and very expensive method of waste management," said Alexander Shuvalov, deputy director of Greenpeace Russia. "Suffice it to say that there is no other capital in the world with this number of incinerators."

Greenpeace has launched a campaign to gather 1,000,000 signatures to send to President Dmitry Medvedev, who they believe is more sympathetic to environmental causes than the Moscow city government.

As of Monday, Greenpeace had received approximately 7,200 signatures, Shuvalov said.

Both environmentalists and industry workers are calling for a program that relies on recycling instead of incineration.

"Incineration is the most expensive way of treating waste," said Lazar Shubov, deputy head of the Waste Workers Association. "A good recycling program would cut infrastructure costs by 50 percent, and we would only need five incinerators. But there is no political will to develop a recycling program in the city."

While an incinerator costs about $350 million, a recycling facility would cost $10 million dollars, he said.

The association has proposed an alternative waste program, under which Muscovites would separate their trash. This would greatly reduce toxic emissions that occur when electronic equipment and dangerous home supplies, such as batteries and thermometers, are mixed with household refuse.

But officials do not seem to believe that recycling is feasible in Moscow.

"People don't want to sort waste," Alexander Mayakin, head of the city government's department of housing and utilities, said at a conference last month. "It's been proven unsuccessful in large cities in Europe, and it hasn't worked in Moscow."

Environmentalists dispute the claim that recycling has been unsuccessful in Europe.

Moscow produces 5.6 million tons of municipal waste annually — a figure that does not include the significant amount of industrial and commercial waste produced by city enterprise. Most of this waste is eventually sent to a landfill or simply dumped in the Moscow region.

The goal of the new program is to reduce the share of garbage in landfills to 15 percent of the total amount, in the form of ash. That ash would then be diverted to landfills or used in construction materials, concrete in particular.

Although similar programs to recycle and inter incinerator ash exist to varying degrees throughout the world, the practice remains controversial. The ash itself is a highly concentrated and toxic mixture that requires special treatment and storage.

Alexander Smirnov, director of Ekotekhprom, a state-controlled company that operates three incinerators and two landfills, justified the incineration plan as safe and effective.

"Most European countries are burning waste, since it's the most effective way," Smirnov said. "Do Russians think they are better than people in Rome or Paris? You can't be holier than the pope."

Environmentalists like Neil Tangri, an activist with the GAIA project, a U.S.-based anti-incinerator group, dispute that logic.

"I've gone all over the world with this," he said, "and everywhere I go people say, 'Oh, here in Italy everything is chaotic, people won't stick to a waste-separation scheme, you don't understand the Italian character.' And then you find towns in Italy that have perfect source separation and are recycling 80 percent of their waste."

In addition to the costs of the program, much of the opposition centers on the fact that there is no law mandating the removal of dangerous substances, such as batteries or aerosol, prior to incineration. This greatly increases the level of cancer-causing agents like dioxin and mercury.

The State Duma's Ecology Committee had repeatedly proposed legislation about recycling and mandatory sorting of waste to remove dangerous and recyclable components before burning, Duma deputy Igor Nikulin said.

The proposals were rejected, though, and the committee was disbanded in January.

Part of the problem is getting officials to understand the very real public health issues that exist even if the plants look safe.

Visitors expecting a post-apocalyptic hellscape might be surprised if they visit existing incinerators like the one near Lipina's home in Kozhukhovo. A peaceful landscape of trees, fields and hills surrounds the incinerator with its towering smokestack.

"In a modern, well-run facility you may not see a lot of black smoke coming out," Tangri said. "In terms of looking at it and how it seems visually, it may not look like a problem."

It is not always what you can see that does the most damage, however. A 2008 study commissioned by the French government concluded that people living downwind of an incinerator are 20 percent more likely to developer cancer than their peers.

Although federal law mandates that no housing can lie within 1,000 meters of an incinerator, pleasant-looking wooden cottages mingle alongside newly constructed dachas about 200 meters away from the towering Kozhukhovo smokestack.

The government recently approved a decree to cut the distance down to 500 meters for Kozhukhovo, while tripling its capacity — a move that allows the possibility of new, large-scale construction even closer to the complex.

Few of the people who may be directly affected by the new incinerator project seem to know about it.

Yasenevo is one of the most densely populated areas of the city, with 174,000 residents. Many families choose the southwest district because of its reputation as environmentally sound. Forty-four thousand of its residents are children under the age of 18, according to the web site of the Southwest Administrative District.

Marina Gureyeva, 25, has lived in Yasenevo her whole life. Her Soviet-era apartment building looks out over the rolling green hills of southern Moscow. Although she lives opposite a future incinerator site, she was surprised and disheartened when told that her view would soon be changing.

"Of course I'm against it," she said, pointing to a nearby playground. "Children play all over this neighborhood."