It’s 2018, and among the many items on its agenda, the Armenian government is preparing to finalize a new initiative that will be a landmark for the country’s landfills: the construction of the first sanitary ones. Yet the gritty details of the “Yerevan Solid Waste Project” are as under-reported as they are important.
What few realize is that this project has been seven years in the making. Its roots date back to 2011, when the Armenian government and the Yerevan Municipality went about crafting a National Solid Waste Strategy (NSWS). That new national strategy determined the next best step for the future of trash in the country: creating sanitary landfills, since it had none (and still doesn’t).
In 2015, the government approached the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and European Investment Bank (EIB) about financing the construction of the project. Both banks agreed and proceeded to sign loan agreements for 8 million euros, each. The municipality has gone on to secure other grants from various European institutions, including another 8 million from the EU Neighbourhood Investment Facility (NIF). In total, the projected costs of the initiative are a little over 25 million euros.
In May of the same year, the Yerevan Municipality and the EBRD contracted two Austrian engineering companies, Bernard Ingenieure and Hydro Ingenieure, to publish a report. The resulting extensive, 180-page report, called “Environmental and Social Impact Assessment” (ESIA), has formed the basis for many logistical decisions about where and how the new landfills will operate. Five sites have been selected across the country where new landfills will be built.
The largest of the projected landfills will be located in Yerevan, next to the current dumpsite, named “Nubarashen” after the 10,000-person community that it borders. The dumpsite is just a little over six miles away from the city’s downtown area and is filled with 9.5 million tons of waste, which has accumulated since the 1950s. Each year, the site accepts 300,000 tons of trash, yet meets no international standards of sanitation. This means that the toxins from the rotting waste escape the site in the form of methane gas and leachates (liquids that have passed through the landfill and picked up toxic matter along the way), posing a severe health risk to the nearby communities of Erebuni and Nubarashen. According to the ESIA, the current dumpsite’s uncontrolled leachates have even formed a “river” nearby.
The new sanitary landfill in Nubarashen will be constructed according to international standards, wherein the soil will be separated from layers of waste, the landfill will be fenced, and the methane gas will be collected, thus reducing its emissions into atmosphere. It will also be physically connected to the old landfill, to help collect leachates and prevent further contamination of nearby communities. The new landfill will occupy approximately 72 acres and will have a lifespan of about 28 years.
According to the ESIA report, the decision to include recycling or waste sorting as an option was ultimately rejected “due to affordability constraints resulting from limited financial resources.” Citing “the absence of suitable district heating networks,” as well as high operation and maintenance costs, the alternative solution of a waste incineration linked with energy production for heating was also not selected.
Locals Demand More Sustainability
Although the new landfill is a positive environmental development, since it will lead to the reduction of around 3,000 tons of methane gas emissions (equivalent to 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide), local environmental groups have expressed criticism over the project’s lack of sustainability—both financial and environmental.
“All the advantages of the new landfill are important,” says an activist from the collective Armenian Environmental Front in one article, “however, in their essence they give no solution to the main environmental problem, i.e. absence of recycling, wasting the burning gas and not using it for producing electricity, not dealing with toxic waste.”
Argument 1: “We are going to pay for it, so we should get a say.”
The landfill will add approximately 16 million euros in loans to Armenia’s already cumbersome deficit, which already equals about 55 percent of the country’s GDP. (For a bit of context, that’s much more than neighboring Georgia’s, whose debt equals only 29 percent of GDP.) Activists argue that because loans are ultimately paid for by citizens, and because the landfill is slated to last only 28 years (meaning that in three decades, another loan will surely be taken out), the landfill should include features that will increase its lifespan. They say that waste diversion programs, like recycling, promise not only to free up more space but also to make society more waste-conscious, leading to reduction of waste.
Argument 2: “Recycling and energy generation infrastructure may be expensive, but encouraging people to use less doesn’t cost much—and the government isn’t even doing that.”
Some wonder why the government is not focusing on reducing waste streams as a cost-friendly alternative to increasing the lifespan of the landfills. “[The government] argues that waste sorting requires new infrastructure, for which there is no money. Nor do they want to change tax policy towards plastic manufacturers and users—i.e., levying additional taxes or granting tax exemptions as incentives,” wrote Sara Petrosyan about this issue for Hetq earlier this week. “There should be less waste reaching the landfill, since there is no prospect of building a waste recycling or combustion plant,” she said.
In the same article, Armineh Tukhikyan from the Urban Foundation for Sustainable Development in Armenia said “the key issue is reducing waste, since the planet can no longer digest it. Many French communities, for example, have chosen the slogan ‘zero waste’ and strive to achieve it. We are among the most backwards countries in this regard, whose policy is to create waste.”
Argument 3: “There are already a number of private recycling companies, all the government has to do is build a sorting facility. It can’t cost that much more.”
Many believe recycling does not exist in Armenia, but a 2014 report released by Urban Foundation revealed there to be at least 28 small recycling companies across the country that recycle plastic, paper, rubber, and metal. Activists argue that adding a waste-sorting component could send the sorted materials to these companies for repurposing, thus providing them business and reducing the need for expenses to construct a brand new recycling facility.
Argument 4: “EBRD’s landfill projects in other CIS countries all have recycling or waste sorting—why not Armenia?”
EBRD has embarked on similar projects in other CIS countries before “Yerevan Solid Waste Project.” In Feb. 2010, the EBRD financed a 3 million euro loan for the Adjara Solid Waste Project, which helped fund the construction of a new sanitary landfill in Chakvi to serve the towns of Kobuleti and Batumi in Georgia. The entire project cost around 8 million euros, and according to its description included a recycling facility as well as public promotional campaigns/incentives to increase “public awareness of the benefits of anti-littering and recycling.”
The Chisinau Solid Waste Project, in Moldova, which is still awaiting approval, costs about 26 million euros (10.5 million of which is funded by an EBRD loan). This project has activities that are similar in scope to the Yerevan Solid Waste project, except that they confirm construction of a waste sorting line that will increase waste-recycling activities.
Also in the works is Belarus’s Puhovichi Solid Waste Project, approved in 2017, which cost 7 million euros (5 million of it funded by an EBRD loan). This project will also invest in the construction of a new waste-sorting facility, and one of the project’s key benefits is “reduced landfilling.”
The precedent for sorting and recycling in these types of projects is there, explain activists—just not in Armenia.
Nebulous Responses from Financiers and Local Authorities to These Queries
In Oct. 2017, AEF representatives voiced some of these concerns in letters to the European banks and local authorities, which was followed by an open letter published in December 2017.
EBRD’s response to the queries (above) clarified that although the decision not to include waste-sorting activities was initially regarded as infeasible in the country’s NSWS from 2011, it has since reconsidered.
Regarding recycling, EBRD wrote that “initially the project, which was approved in 2015, was limited to constructing a landfill designed to EU standards…. However, later waste diversion measures…were included in the Project through a loan by the co-financing institution European Investment Bank (EIB). The scope of this component is still under discussion with the Yerevan Municipality.”
Regarding gas collection and energy generation, EBRD wrote that “landfill gas will be collected at both the existing and the new landfill and if found feasible, energy recovery from the collected gas will be considered.”
The response from EIB representatives (above) stated that the project does, in fact, include a waste-diversion component “that may include separate collection, equipment, recycling centres, material recovery facility, and composting facility,” but that “the scope of this component is still under discussion with the Municipality of Yerevan.” The response also confirmed that the project will include landfill gas collection systems, both for the old and new landfills, and that “it is foreseen that energy will be recovered from the collected landfill gas.” EIB then referenced the ESIA document from 2015—a document which clearly states that waste sorting and energy collection are both nonviable options.
The Armenian government’s response:
The Ministry of Territorial Administration and Development (MTAD) responded (above) on behalf of the Armenian government, stating that waste recycling is possible if there is a public-private sector collaboration, and in the light of this it mentioned that there is already private interest from foreign private organizations to build a waste-incineration facility (based on biochemical process) in Armenia, and that currently this aspect is under discussion.
Though the ESIA report from 2015 had clearly stated that this project would not consider features such as recycling, waste sorting, or energy generation, these responses tell a different story. It seems that the project actually is considering factoring in some of these features, but responses from all parties are vague enough that nothing can be confirmed.
Obstacles to Recycling and Waste Reduction in Armenia
The list of obstacles Armenia faces in dealing sustainably with its waste is long, and those obstacles range from geopolitical barriers to ideological ones.
In a recent interview with the Armenian Weekly, the CEO of the Lebanese waste management company, Sanitek, which is responsible for disposing of all the garbage in Yerevan, provided a rundown on the geopolitics of recycling. These politics, Nicholas Tawil says, further limit the “economic viability” of recycling in Armenia.
“Armenia is a closed country. There are problems with Azerbaijan, there are problems with Turkey, borders are closed, and the market is too small to sell such recyclables because the investment is very high,” explained Tawil.
“So the only way to [sell] is through Georgia, through other places in the world, where the transportation costs will be much higher than receiving them from other places in the world.” Selling recyclables through Iran was also presented as an option, but due to “political instability” and “uncertainty of whether the embargo will reach Iran or not,” he said, for now his company would not be willing to take that option into consideration.
The government has also shown in the past that in relation to environmental issues it tends to favor short-term profit to long-term sustainability. That was particularly the case in 2002, when the Yerevan Municipality was in negotiations with a Tokyo-based company called Shimizu Corporation for the “Yerevan City Landfill Gas Utilization Project.”
The plans for the project included collecting gases from about 130 acres of landfill in Nubarashen and converting it to electricity, which would have reduced carbon emissions by over two million tons over the course of 16 years. It also would have allowed Armenia to produce a renewable energy and generate an income of $550,000 annually.
The project was part of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol and would have been financed by the Japanese. Armenia’s Ministry of Economy ultimately rejected the proposal, stating that the Japanese side would “get a monopoly over Nubarashen landfill which would limit inclusion of other operators in the field of waste management.”