This article is published in collaboration with the regional portal Bilten.
We are habituated to think that polluting things such as garbage normally fall on minorities to deal with in order to keep them as far from us as possible. Thus, conveniently the most “polluting” social classes are tasked with the organization of garbage. For example, in Bulgaria it is the urban Roma work who predominantly for the garbage collection companies. Their symbolic position in social space (as the lowliest and most marginal “caste”) is completed by their inhabiting the physically most marginal spaces in the city and having only the most polluting occupations available to them.
But those lowly and the unworthy things that populate our trash bins can also become an asset, and thus, very valuable to the people we least associate with garbage – the economic elites. I don’t mean to say that the elites are displacing the gypsies (or the African migrants, in places like Malta and Italy) in garbage collection; unfortunately, the racial hierarchy in maintaining public cleanliness still persists. Rather, waste is a lucrative international commodity. Garbage breaks open new markets and new terrains for the accumulation of capital. Trade in waste, especially in RDF (“refuse derived fuels,” used in cement production) is rising. It is part of the logic of “innovative” market-solutions to municipal landfills stretched to capacity. In what follows I will detail a chapter of this story of trash as a vector of accumulation.
In the summer of 2016 a media scandal broke out over the export of Italian trash to Bulgaria. The Italian newspaper La Stampa sounded the alarm that Sicilian landfills are unable to accommodate more waste so the authorities have resorted to exporting it to Bulgaria. Correre della Sera also published an article claiming that Rome’s municipal waste is being shipped with trains to Bulgaria. Lucrative deals with cargo companies from Germany are costing the Rome municipality 25 million EUR a year to dispose of the waste, thundered CdS, quoted in the Bulgarian paper Monitor. Sicily pays 80 million EUR to export its garbage, according to Corriere di Ragusa newspaper. La Stampa further breaks down the bill, arguing that the island pays the shipping companies 110 EUR per tonne of waste, whereas it costs the latter only 30 EUR to transport the garbage. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water charges a mere 350 BGN or around 175 EUR fee for each notification for waste importation the private contractors apply for. But none of this should weaken our faith that public-private partnerships are the best option for streamlining budgets! Especially when the money beefing up contractors who export trash to cheap European countries could have been spent on developing facilities for environmentally sound waste disposal domestically.
The Italian investigations alerted the Bulgarian media. They wrote alarming headlines suggesting that Bulgaria is becoming a dump-yard for European trash. The examples given by the Italian media further reinforced this impression. For example, La Stampa used the following picture to illustrate what kind of refuse is being exported, namely consumer waste:
But the Bulgarian media “investigations” did not discover any traces of municipal waste in the Varna port. They still interviewed residents of Devnya (the end destination of the Italian trash cargo). The people complained not about plastic bottles or pasta leftovers roaming around (as the journalists must have imagined) but about ashes littering the town. These complaints, although featured in the same alarmist articles, did not lead the journalists to doubt their hasty conclusions about the “European dump yard”. Nevertheless, the journalists questioned the Ministry of Environment and Water, the district governor of Varna, and the mayor of the town of Devnya. The governor assured the concerned public that the waste imported is not consumer waste but carefully recycled “wooden materials, petroleum byproducts and plastic bags suitable for incineration” to be used solely as a fuel for the “Devnya Cement” factory. Perhaps we will never know who is right about the nature of the waste (municipal, as the Italian media claims, or recycled “wooden” materials, etc.).
When questioned, the mayor of Devnya first admitted he hadn’t been briefed about the issue, but the following day he echoed the words of the minister confirming that the fuel is for incineration in cement kilns and there isn’t any health hazard for the residents. Both men echo cement producers who praise RDF for its high caloric value and efficiency. As one of them was quoted saying, “no visible ash remains in the kiln after burning.” Such praise omits that a lot of invisible stuff remains after burning of RDF, mostly carcinogenic. For example, an EU report found that burning of RDF in cement kilns emits more lead, mercury, and cadmium compared to coal. Another report, produced by the “Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives” pressure group, states that “people living near incinerators that burn waste, including RDF, are exposed to high levels of dioxins and furans. These highly poisonous substances can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer.” Therefore, all of the official endorsement of RDF runs contrary to reports about the emission of toxic and heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
It was noteworthy that the La Stampa article was inserted under the rubric of “ecomafia”. In fact, it is well-documented that waste disposal in Southern Italy is the domain of the mafia. Its waste-dumping activities are causing an alarming rise of cancer rates around areas close to the illegal dumps.1 But this is nothing to worry about – international trade in waste for the production of carcinogenic and toxic RDF is becoming perfectly legal. Who needs the mafia with health benefits of legal trade like these?
None of the media outlets who dealt with the Italian waste scandal looked carefully into this legal trade. There is a wicked dialectic at work in which every media scandal occludes the real scandal. The Bulgarian Minister of the environment exploited the media hype to the fullest and tried to calm down the public by arguing that the EU forbids the export of trash for the purposes of depositing it in the ground; only trade in waste to be used as fuel for factories is allowed (as if the environmental impact of the latter is negligible compared to the former). And the stunt was successful – the media coverage ended precisely at the point where it should have begun, namely questioning the turning of the country into a cheap destination for RDF incineration. Surely the authorities must have welcomed the fears for ground disposal of “foreign” waste because it is easy to dispel rumors about a non-issue, and in the process to create a smoke screen for the real issue.
Yet, the minister’s words were somewhat misleading because the EU rules forbid the shipment of waste (municipal trash but also hazardous waste) for disposal only into non-EU states, which are neither OECD, nor party to the Basel convention; in short, to developing countries.2 Within the EU, trans-border shipment of waste is allowed, subject to notification and authorization. It is allowed both for disposal and for fuel within the EU. Such trade is even promoted (for example, for small countries that lack capacity for storing or treating it) but the regulations give freedom of the country of destination to exercise discretion and thus refuse the cargo if it wants. This is precisely what the Bulgarian government has done, forbidding the importation of waste for the purposes of disposal only. It permits the importation of waste for fuel. Had the journalists done their homework, they wouldn’t have needed the government to tell them what’s already publicly accessible on the website of every government and EC agency dealing with waste. Instead, the media could have engaged with the issue’s truly problematic aspects: RDF, the cozy relations between government and business and the ideology of “innovative market-based solutions” in which the hazardous RDF is enveloped and sold to a public tired of perennial waste management problems.
According to the European Environmental Agency, “the EU is increasingly acting like a single market in terms of hazardous and problematic waste treatment” with statistics showing that the legal export of hazardous waste “almost quadrupled” between 1997-2005 (ЕЕА 20093). As the agency explains, one of the major motors propelling forward waste trade is the difference in pricing for waste treatment and disposal across EU member states. This difference allows municipal or private market actors to arbitrage between disposing of waste at home at a higher price or shipping it abroad for less. And Bulgaria counts as a cheap outsourcing destination on many levels: for customer support and IT services as well as for RDF. On both grounds, Bulgaria seems to be competing with the so-called “developing countries”.
Do we need a clearer signal that the “Return to Europe” dream of 1989 has crashed into the toxic nightmare of peripheral development?
Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology and Social anthropology at CEU, Budapest. She researches the latest anti-government mobilizations in Bulgaria and is interested in theories of populism, ideology and civil society.