Landfill outside Kiev a toxic nightmare for local residents
For stray dogs and scavenging birds, Landfill No.5 outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev is a treasure trove of trash, but the mountains of overflowing and noxious garbage are plaguing residents.
Nina Popova, a 73-year-old retired accountant who lives in the nearby village of Pidgirtsi, says life there is a misery.
“It reeks. We’re all sick. We have heart problems and difficulty breathing,” Popova told AFP outside her modest brick cottage.
Breathing heavily, she added that her children “suffocate” when they come to visit.
Covering 63 hectares (156 acres), the sprawling dump outside Kiev is one of the largest in Ukraine and part of network of more than 6,100 landfills.
Already at capacity, it was slated for closure in 2018, with garbage diverted to a new site. But the new facility was never constructed and trash is piling higher and higher.
The story of the site points to a larger problem in the country.
Thirty years after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, it lacks a functioning waste management system and requisite resources to tackle a garbage crisis that is perpetuating public health and ecological concerns.
The president’s office concedes that most landfills are overflowing and fall short of safety standards. It estimates some 33,000 illegal dumps have proliferated throughout the country.
“It’s not a secret to anyone that Ukraine is drowning in garbage. And every day, every minute the situation is getting worse,” then-deputy head of the presidency, Yulia Svyrydenko, warned in September.
– ‘Lever’ to halt climate change –
She made the comments at a meeting of local and regional officials after President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced concerns. But the problem has much wider ramifications.
Globally, landfills like the one menacing Popova’s neighbourhood contribute to climate change as a major emitter of methane, a gas 30 times more harmful than CO2 according to the United Nations.
UN Environment Programme executive director Inger Andersen in May said reducing methane was “the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years”.
To address the problem, Kiev introduced a law in 2018 requiring households to sort waste to aid recycling efforts.
The order has largely been ignored and just four percent of the approximately 10 million tonnes of household trash produced annually is sorted, according to the presidency.
Added to that, there is only one waste incinerator — dating from the Soviet period — to serve the entire country of 40 million. It lacks capacity to handle waste even from Kiev.
The crux of the problem is that Ukrainian authorities are either unwilling or unable to pay more to better process garbage, analysts said.
Kiev shells out less than 10 euros ($11) to process a ton of waste compared to 100-170 euros in Western European countries, explained Svyatoslav Pavlyuk, executive director of the Ukrainian Association of Energy-Efficient Cities.
3 / 4 – Landfills contribute to climate change as a major emitter of methane (AFP/Aleksey Filippov)
– ‘It’s scary’ –
“This sum isn’t enough to actually treat waste. It only covers its transportation to a field and its placement in the ground,” Pavlyuk said.
Yevgeniya Aratovska, a 42-year-old economist, took matters into her own hands six years ago, launching a small sorting site in Kiev called No Waste Ukraine.
“I realised that a lot of people didn’t even know that it’s necessary to sort,” Aratovska said.
Khrystyna Richmanenko did not realise how much waste she was producing until she started sorting it. “It’s scary,” the 29-year-old teacher remarked.
She added that there were no recycling centres near her home or official instructions on where to find one.
“You have to look for yourself how to do it properly,” she added.
More than 45 percent of Ukrainians say a lack of recycling bins is the main obstacle to more sorting, according to a November poll.
Analysts added that authorities should do more to raise awareness among Ukrainians about the impact their waste has on the environment.
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4 / 4 The Ukrainian president’s office concedes that most landfills in the country are overflowing and fall short of safety standards (AFP/Sergei SUPINSKY)
Ultimately, said environmental activist Kostiantyn Yalovyi, what was needed is a drastic increase in funding to better handle waste.
Even though that investment would be likely to fall on Ukrainians and trigger protests, the stakes of doing nothing were much higher.
“If today we don’t start sorting and generally change Ukrainians’ attitude towards garbage, the entire country could turn into a landfill”, Yalovyi said.