YEREVAN—Garbage continues to pile up in bins across the Armenian capital, many of which have not been emptied in weeks. In some of the worst-affected districts, the wind has blown off the tops of what have become little garbage mountains, spreading their contents onto the surrounding streets. Locals have come to cherish the rare occasions where Sanitek garbage vehicles did arrive. “I’ve now come to love the previously annoying sound of incoming Sanitek trucks,” confided a social media user. Yerevantsis have resorted to posting photos of overflowing garbage bins on Facebook, tagging both Sanitek and the Yerevan municipality.
Many have been pointing fingers at Sanitek, the Lebanese firm which holds an exclusive waste management contract from the city, for failing to meet its contractual obligations. However, the Yerevan municipality itself has also come under fire for its seemingly lackluster response to the looming rubbish crisis.
In 2015, Sanitek won a $10 million contract to service all of Yerevan’s 12 districts. The decision to privatize waste management was hailed at the time. Sanitek invested over $20 million in its Yerevan operations, employing over 1100 people. Aside from general trash removal, Sanitek’s contractual obligations included winter snow removal, the establishment of sanitary landfills and a composting program.
The waste disposal matter, which many taxpayers consider to be an essential service, has always concealed a political dimension for City Hall. For critics of the municipal authorities, the ability to deal with sanitation acts as a litmus test on the mayor’s ability to effectively manage the Armenian capital. Indeed, the previous Republican Party-controlled municipal government’s chronic failure to solve the issue significantly contributed to Hayk Marutyan’s landslide victory last October.
Edmon Marukyan, a Parliamentarian and leader of the opposition ‘Bright Armenia’ party, criticized the municipality’s handling of the situation on Facebook. In the post, he accused the current mayor of gaining his office by riding a sea of good-will following last year’s Velvet Revolution, rather than by demonstrating his ability to solve the city’s problems. “We need a mayor of Yerevan elected by the people of Yerevan through free and fair elections. Otherwise, the city will never get rid of rubbish, dogs, death elevators or gas problems,” he wrote.
Among Marutyan’s electoral promises was a pledge to provide a lasting solution to the city’s continuing struggle with waste disposal. During a campaign rally, Marutyan told a crowd of ecstatic supporters, “The problem is that one company owns a monopoly on waste disposal. If Sanitek can’t deal with the workload, we’ll issue a second tender,” he declared.
This week, Mayor Marukyan appears to be doing just that. During a live-streamed sitting of the City Council the mayor told attending Sanitek representatives, “The last three months, I’ve been asking you for updates on when your new trucks and rubbish bins will arrive.” He continued, “And for three months you’ve failed to give me anything.” The mayor added that the municipality had maintained its contractual obligations to the waste management firm, providing its monthly payments on time. “We will maintain our pledge to clean this city,” said the mayor “with or without Sanitek.”
City Hall has already fined the waste management company twice for breach of contract since Marukyan took office for a total of $50,000. The municipality has also accused the Lebanese multinational of only delivering 4000 out of an expected 16,000 trash bins, many of which are in various states of disrepair. It has also requested and received a $1.8 million grant from the Armenian government to spend on 15 new rubbish trucks and trash cans to help alleviate Sanitek’s burden. While only a temporary measure, the move has riled some in the opposition. They argue that the mayor’s office is passing the buck on the crisis. In their view, the tender for new trucks also opens up the possibility for more corrupt dealings—an accusation which the government vehemently refutes.
Sanitek insists that it only bears part of the blame for the current rubbish crisis. The firm has cited poor citizen etiquette when dealing with company property, traffic and road conditions as factors beyond the company’s control. Indeed, Sanitek has had to issue several public requests for residents to cease tossing lit cigarette butts into open trash bins or inflict damage on them.
The company also complained that its trash collection efforts had been hampered by a tendency for residents to dump trash in inappropriate locations. Yerevan’s ongoing traffic congestion crisis has both slowed the pace of collection operations and caused accidents. “Sanitek is almost broke,” according to an anonymous source with ties to the company. “Their initial contract with the city allowed them a tiny profit margin, much of which is then spent constantly repairing damage to bins and vehicles.” The company has also accused municipal authorities of not acting on a pledge to repave the road to the Nubarashen Landfill. According to a Sanitek spokesperson, much of the company’s fleet has been damaged from that road.
Seemingly buckling under pressure from the municipality and the general public, Sanitek announced that it would hold a press conference in Yerevan on Friday. In doing so, the company reversed a previously-announced decision to hold the press conference in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The firm promises to answer journalist questions about its new strategy.
As Yerevan contends with the growing pains of a 21st century city, both Sanitek and the comedian-turned-mayor have staked their reputation on their ability to solve the ongoing trash crisis.