GreenGroup, which currently comprises six waste recycling and management companies – GreenTech, GreenFiber International, GreenWEEE, GreenLamp Reciclare, GreenGlass Recycling and Total Waste Management – has invested EUR 70 million since starting operations in Romania 12 years ago. Constantin Damov, co-founder of the group, tells BR why waste collection is difficult in Romania and what can be done to change that.
Romania is in last place in the EU for recycling urban waste. Why do you think that is?
Inefficient waste collection is one of the weakest links in the recycling industry. Currently, the collection of recyclable waste post-consumption cannot ensure enough volumes so that industrial operations go smoothly and recycling has a real impact on the environment.
For instance, take our glass recycling unit Green Glass, which started working in December 2013 and in which we have invested EUR 4 million. Even though it has last generation equipment and is fully compliant with the “End of Waste” criteria (the guarantee that the waste is processed and transformed into products and thus no longer has waste status), it does not receive the necessary quantities of waste to work at full capacity.
With a processing capacity of 110,000 tons annually, Green Glass could process all the glass generated in Bucharest in an entire year in just 11 days. In spite of this, glass packaging is not collected at all post-consumption and ends up in garbage dumps, polluting the environment.
This is the situation across the entire recycling industry in Romania. At the moment, recycling plants receive less than 10 percent of the waste produced locally.
What measures do you think should be taken to improve the waste collection rate?
Improving selective collection, with a direct impact on growing the volume and quantity of waste that reaches the plants, would be the first step.
Recyclable waste is the type that can be re-processed and re-introduced into the economy for reuse. It is, therefore, important that it is not stored with other types, such as food waste.
The efficiency of separate collection is measured by the degree of waste sorting in the plants.
To give an idea, the plastic waste we receive at the plant is mostly mixed and contaminated with bits of food, textiles, cardboard or metallic impurities. This makes the entire process of transforming the plastic waste into raw matter less efficient and very costly.
What investments are required from the state to increase the recycling rate?
Romania cannot make significant progress towards reaching its selective waste collection target, which in 2020 will be 50 percent, without introducing a taxation system to discourage throwing away waste randomly at the garbage dump, and with no investments in collection infrastructure. It is hard to estimate the exact value of the necessary investments, but we could say that to set up the minimum infrastructure, it would cost several hundred million EUR.
The model of states which have seen good results shows us that there is a series of mechanisms in place, which can discourage the disposal of waste at the garbage dump and stimulate recycling. These include the introduction of a tax on disposing of waste at the dump, banning the storage of certain types of waste and the “pay as you throw” system. The coordinated implementation of these three mechanisms can boost the quantity of waste that is separated and recycled.
Do you believe there are enough waste collection points right now?
It is obvious that there are not enough collection points and in certain small towns, localities and rural areas, they are non-existent. On the other hand, local authorities lack the expertise and the necessary capital to implement collection systems that can sustain people’s needs and the necessary logistics so that the material reaches the recycling point.
We came to the aid of the authorities with a simple and transparent solution, a type of infrastructure that completes the current separate collecting infrastructure. Under the name Sigurec, we implemented in Romania, first from private funds and then with financing from the Norwegian government through grants (ed. note: non-reimbursable funds of EUR 1.4 million), some automatized stations for receiving the waste, which offer shopping discount vouchers in exchange for the collected waste.
Based on intelligent software that records the most important data about the collected waste, such as quantity, weight, and type of material, the Sigurec collecting stations (ed. note: the stations can take up to 12 types of household waste) ensure its traceability. The system generates collection reports in real time, which means we have very clear evidence of the waste that we collect. All the quantities we receive can be reported back to the authorities based on detailed and precise information in the reports.
Do you believe the low recycling rate is a result of insufficient education in this field?
We would not say that people are not educated enough, but they are obviously not informed. (…) We are still in the stage of lack of confidence and of myths: “What happens to the waste after it is sorted? Where does it go, to the dump or to industry? Are there recycling plants in Romania?”
What is needed is accurate information and to show people the final results. If you see with your own eyes that the waste gets to the plant, and if you even visit the plant, and have information on the quantity of waste you have collected, you are more motivated.
The discount voucher that people receive after bringing their waste is also a guarantee that the waste was recorded in the system. Moreover, we launched an online platform and a mobile app (Sigurec) that connects people with the collecting system. The voucher they receive contains a QR code and a unique registration number. People can either scan the code with the mobile app or input the unique number on the website www.sigurec.ro and in this way they can see the whole history of the waste they have collected. Starting from these results, the platform calculates the carbon emissions they have saved. We wish this way to inform people and grow their awareness of the impact each of them can have on protecting the environment via selective collection.
Can you give examples of case studies of countries where recycling is now a daily practice?
Recently, we visited Norway and Sweden, two countries with very good results as far as recycling and collective selection are concerned, which have managed to reduce the waste that goes to the dumping site to less than 1 percent of the total. Here 50 percent of the waste is recycled while up to 99 percent of the rest is recovered energetically.
They have recycling parks located outside the city where people go every week and put their waste in special places. This is the result of the implementation of the “pay as you throw” scheme, where the quantities they bring to the recycling park are translated into a lower sanitation bill.
Do you think that there are enough recycling plants in Romania or does the market need more?
At the moment, the recycling capabilities are higher than the collected quantities of waste made of packaging, electric and electronic appliances, paper, batteries and tires. But there are also waste flows where the recycling capacities are insufficient, such as textile, wood and oil waste.
Recycling is a commercial activity on a free, competition-driven market where self-regulation is working. In Romania, the number of recyclers is in direct relation with the quantities that are collected. The development of the recycling market in numbers and size will be the result of the quantitative and qualitative growth of the collected waste.