Yerevan Municipality Under Pressure to Take Out the Trash

Amiryan 4/6 (Photo: Facebook/Kima Abrahamyan)

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.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

14 Comments

  1. I have to laugh, hats off to the Yerevan Municipality. Who else would ever dream of hiring a Lebanese sanitation company, given the fact that Beirut has the worst sanitation problem in the Middle East and did not have trash removal for over a year at one point. Pretty gross.

    • Awful. I have no words. The same trash issue is in our neighborhood. Several days ago, a woman who is working for the committee of the community approached me and said that we should go and pay for the trash. It is 200 drams for the person per month, it seems like nothing, but if one do basics calculations will gain a pretty high amount of money.
      Thus, the question is what they do with that money if they do not ensure the process of garbage removal from the streets. In this modern world, where garbage is something like gold like we can recycle it and use for several purposes, Armenia and especially municipality of Yerevan do not consider that fact.
      Moreover, I have noticed another thing. They reduced the number of trash holders. It seems like they have new words like “No trash holders, no issues related to garbage removal.”

  2. The pictures speak a thousand words. It is very unappealing but more seriously, it poses huge health risks. It destroys the beauty of Yerevan and puts in jeopardy the well being of the citizen and the businesses near these dumps.
    I agree with Christopher. Of all the reputable waste disposal companies in the world, why was a Lebanese company chosen? Was Sanitek vetted? Were they simply the cheapest?
    Hope this mess is cleaned up before it becomes a much more serious problem.
    Vart Adjemian

    • Yes, as is typical when it comes to government tenders, Sanitek underbid and -unfortunately for them- actually won the bid. Now they’re stuck with a contract which offers only razor-thin profit margins. Having said that, when they entered the market, they really were a positive change. They brought in brand new equipment, created (well-paying) jobs, gave lectures about recycling in schools and tried to introduce a new culture towards waste management.

      While Sanitek is responsible for their own mismanagements, the blame partially lies on the people of Yerevan. Within months, their state-of-the-art trucks were driving around without bumpers, or busted turn lights…so many of their trash bins had literally melted from all the fires that people would set in them…It’s too bad. I do hope they find a solution though.

  3. I agree. I walked past the central bank near the main square and two bins overflowing onto the street. It’s disgraceful and disappointing.

  4. In the past few days I’ve noticed a lot of trash pick up taking place. The workers even scrap up all of the small bits left on the ground. Many of the large heavy duty plastic bins are broken or damaged however.

  5. Not to say anything for or against a Lebanese company engaged in business dealings with Armenia. But just because Beirut has had a sanitation problem, it does not mean a Lebanese sanitation company is not competent to do any sanitation work. Ironic, maybe, but Beirut having a sanitation problem is due to government, not any company engaged in business.

  6. It is the problem of the world, not Armenia only, stop attacking …Shame … See back of Vatican collected thrush …Let the Armenian government clean their “old thieves” first before the thrush… Thrush means Armenians are getting rich …Armenians are throwing cardboards … Even the gulf rich states are collecting them … Throwing things without thinking for me is a sin …Before you throw think ..think about Armenians during genocide they needed many things to cover themselves…

  7. On Saturday, August 3rd, I went on a long car ride here in Yerevan. I rode along the streets and avenues of Baghramyan, Mashtots, Komitas, Kievyan, Arshakunyats, Nalbandyan, Saryan, Teryan, and Tigran Mets. And from what I observed, I did not notice any garbage bins overflowing with garbage, nor garbage bags stacked upon one another. From what I observed of Yerevan on that particular day, it looked quite clean. Hopefully, it’ll remain like that and not deteriorate to the level of what it looks like in those photos.

    Maqur pahenq mer tankagin qaghaq@!

  8. Terrible. The primary responsibility of keeping the city clean rests in the hands of the City Administration. Signed agreement or not with Sanitek, the City Administration has to take emergency actions and find an immediate solution. Besides the City Administration and the citizens of Armenia have to take responsibility and Keep their city clean. Breaking trash cans and deliberately throwing garbage on the streets is shameful and not an act of civilized people. It is also very probable that some of these acts of throwing garbage on the streets and breaking garbage containers could be the work of opposition in order to make the new government look bad. Whatever the reasons are, Sanitek, the Yerevan City Administration or sabotage, it is a shame for us, Armenians. We have to stop this stupidity, come to our senses and clean the city of Yerevan. The common saying of, “We should not dispose our dirty laundry in front of foreigners” is more applicable in this case. Lets wake up before we have a break of cholera.

  9. Indeed, its fun to point out the unintentional irony of a Lebanese company offering waste management services in another country (like North Korean police offering consulting services on human rights) but as you say, Lebanon’s garbage crisis isn’t really an issue of lack of know-how, its due to a political deadlock and corruption.

  10. Awful. I have no words. The same trash issue is in our neighborhood. Several days ago, a woman who is working for the committee of the community approached me and said that we should go and pay for the trash. It is 200 drams for the person per month, it seems like nothing, but if one do basics calculations will gain a pretty high amount of money.
    Thus, the question is what they do with that money if they do not ensure the process of garbage removal from the streets. In this modern world, where garbage is something like gold like we can recycle it and use for several purposes, Armenia and especially municipality of Yerevan do not consider that fact.
    Moreover, I have noticed another thing. They reduced the number of trash holders. It seems like they have new words like “No trash holders, no issues related to garbage removal.”

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