Minority members of the Romanian Parliament are struggling to promote dialogue with civil society on waste management at a time when the majority in power exerts pressures to emasculate environmental legislation in order to open the way for abstruse economic interests.
This is why Allen Coliban, President of the Environmental Commission of the Senate, the upper chamber of the Parliament, initiated a parliamentary inquiry commission to look into the issues, such as the infringement procedures of the European Union against Romania as well as the repeated environmental and safety events at several landfills around the country—Măldărești, Pata Rât, Glina, Brașov, Tecuci, Lipova, Bacău. The commission was also to look into the large number of public complaints about the quality of environment, including fears of heavy metal pollution and unbearable smells in densely populated areas close to landfills.
The inquiry commission conducted a series of field visits between 2017 and 2018. Their report, “The State of Waste in Romania”, was made public in April 2018. It paints a grim and dim picture of the national waste management system, tainted with mismanagement, incompetence, corruption and lack of transparency, resulting in high risks for human health and the environment.
Mistrust and lack of dialogue are some of the main concerns of the inquiry commission
“I live in Chiajna, a commune practically connected to Bucharest in the north-western part of the capital, where we have an incinerator for dangerous waste, Stericycle, that recycles medical wastes from hospitals in and around Bucharest”, says Cornel Zainea, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of the Romanian Parliament and an enthusiastic supporter of the Senate’s inquiry commission. “The official data shows very low mercury air emissions, but we have reasons to fear that in reality they are much higher. The incinerator is connected to the Iridex landfill in Rudeni-Chiajna, which we believe to be the source of another problem: obnoxious smells. According to the operator of the landfill, the hydrogen sulphide levels for the compound are zero or close to zero; but independent measurements, including some done by myself, indicate levels exceeding 100 times the legal limit.”
The report also points out that toxic substances are emitted in excess when accidental fires occur at landfills. The most dangerous of these substances are dioxins and furans, which are carcinogenic. However, in addition to cancer, they can also lead to diabetes, loss of fertility, skin rashes, changes in child behavioural development, etc.
Some landfills account for tens of open fires annually
The landfills are easily set on fire due to the high percentage of organic matter. Just at Pata Rât (the landfill for Cluj county) alone, there have been more than 30 open fires in 2017, according to media reports. The source of the fires is probably deep, where waste burns continually, and cannot be dealt with. According to the parliamentary report, the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations has not the procedures, technology or specialised personnel to extinguishing deep-seated landfill fires. They can only deal with open fires.
But extinguishing an open fire creates another problem. Landfills already have to deal with the normal leachate, which is due to the high humidity of waste and is already very toxic. However another special form of leachate comes from when expired drugs and batteries that reach the landfill—instead of being stored separately—catch on fire and are then doused with water. The runoff from extinguishing the fires picks up dangerous chemicals from both the drugs and batteries, further putting surface and phreatic waters around the landfills at continuous risk.
Romania is also under infringement by the EC for non-compliance with another four waste Directives.
In theory, waste management should have already been solved in Romania with the massive European funding it has received in the last decades. But in reality, as the parliamentary report points out, only two of the 32 finalised or ongoing Integrated Waste Management Systems projects co-financed by the EU are functional, and only partly so. These are located in Bistrița and Argeș counties.
According to the European Commission (EC), Romania was obliged to close and rehabilitate its 109 “uncontrolled landfills” by 2009, but it still had 68 non-compliant landfills by the end of 2016.
The EC took Romania to the Court of Justice of the EU
In an effort to urge Romania to speed up the process,the EC took Romania to the Court of Justice of the EU in 2017 “for failing to review and adopt its national waste management plan and waste prevention programme, in line with the objectives of EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC) and the circular economy”.
Romania is also under infringement by the EC for non-compliance with another four waste Directives: consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags; packaging and packaging waste; end-of-life vehicles; waste from extractive industries.
According to Adrian Moraru, Director of The Institute for Public Policy, a think tank based in Bucharest, 16 completed EU municipal waste projects were supposed to be functional by 31 March 2018. “The goal was not only to acquire infrastructure through these projects”, says Moraru, “but also to properly use it. If not, Romania could be obliged to repay up to 1.2 billion Euros to the European Union”.
“Of course, the purpose of the EU is not to make us pay”, says Coliban. “We could have been fined since 2014. Moreover, starting from the year 2020, we can be fined up to 200,000 Euros a day if we don’t reach the 50% recycling target for municipal waste. But what the EU really wants at this stage is to wake us up.”
A potential fine will however be ineffective, as it will be paid by the state, says Moraru, while the possible solutions rest at a community level.
Romania’s rate of recycled and composted municipal waste stands officially at 13% (latest official data available for year 2014). “But”, says Moraru, “the real figures are probably closer to 3-5%, and moreover, they are stagnating”.
While Romania has also reported a 57% rate for recycling of packaging waste (latest official available data for 2014), the figures proved overinflated. As a result, in 2015 the so-called Transfer of Responsibility Organizations were fined 19 million Euros for false reporting, says Moraru. Commercial companies affiliated with these organisations were also considered responsible for the false reporting, as they endorsed it without checking.
But, says Coliban, the official data is also unreliable. He gives as an example Brașov county, where there are still six uncontrolled landfills in addition to the authorised one. Some 20,000 tonnes of municipal waste, approximately 10% of the total waste generated per annum, if not more, are completely unaccounted for and simply being thrown into fields or rivers.
Circular economy – a solution
A solution suggested by the parliamentary report is to appeal to the so-called circular economy, i.e., to change the paradigm from “use-dispose” to “reduce-reuse-recover”. According to estimates, in this way over 180,000 workplaces could be created in Romania till 2030, in addition to a decrease of 10-40% of raw materials consumption.
This is very important, says Moraru, because now most of the waste companies are simply waste carriers. The general understanding is that waste has no value in Romania, he adds. There are some recycling companies, as well as some “cherry pickers” (for valuable waste, mainly scrap metal). But not for the other waste.
Romania is home to the largest recycling facility in Eastern Europe, Green Group Buzău, the main European supplier of synthetic fibre. But the country has to import PETs, because locally generated waste is deposited mixed into landfills, plastic included.
The main actors—local authorities, waste companies, citizens and the state—are blaming each other for the inefficiency of the system, says Moraru.
While separate collection of waste is mostly not practised despite the existing infrastructure, local authorities have recently come up with a new idea: building waste incinerators. One such proposal for Bucharest estimates a cost of approximately 1.3 million Euros for one incinerator.
This would be an expensive error, says the parliamentary report. To make economical sense, such an incinerator must be operated for a very long period of time (30 years). But even if it proves economically feasible, it will heavily pollute the air with dioxins, furans and microparticles; and it will burn recyclable wastes, sabotaging the circular economy.
While the inquiry report on waste was endorsed by the Senate Commission, it was rejected by the Parliament plenary. Coliban intends to resubmit it for approval, because he firmly believes that solutions to the difficult environmental challenges faced by the Romanian waste management system can only be found through dialogue and consensus.
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