Eastern European countries are still grappling with the legacy of communist-era waste collection and treatment systems, according to Mojca Dr?ar Murko, a Slovenian MEP who says consumer education is now key. She spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview ahead of the Commission’s annual Green Week event.
Mojca Drcar Murko is shadow rapporteur on the EU’s waste framework directive in the European Parliament for the ALDE Group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe).
Slovenia is currently the EU’s ‘leader’, but what about the leadership in area of waste prevention and resources management?
Unfortunately I cannot say Slovenia is leading in this area. In certain aspects we are lagging behind – for instance we do not recycle a lot. Our industry is capable of recycling only around 6-8 percent of waste, which is not very much.
We are not the worst in the European Union, but far from being good. So, I think one of the most important tasks for our administrative authority and others is to deal with this problem, to raise the percentage of recycled waste and of course to better organise an integrated waste management system. In order to be able to recycle, you need to collect and separate waste and that is the main problem in this chain.
Slovenia has to inspire itself from different schemes used in the EU. Some of them are focused on consumers and citizens, the others on industry. But in general, households are the most complicated case because of the wide spectrum of waste produced.
You said collecting waste from households is the biggest problem. But is it not a matter of choosing the correct approach?
Yes, of course. In the EU, some countries have schemes that operate automatically. I think that there is no ideal solution and probably a mix of measures would be the best solution for those who are still searching for a system.
But as far as I am concerned, I would say that without a push from the side of government, from the authorities, without incentives for the citizens to do this and that, nothing will happen. The problem is not the absence of technology, there are many ones. Today it is also very simple to install really complicated mechanical separating mechanisms, but the problem remains that the citizens must know how they work, how they should be operated and why it is good to separate waste, of course.
And the answer is that we are doing this for the environment; we are doing this for ourselves, to save resources, but also due to climate change. We already have quite fresh calculations at European level that show us how much better waste management systems could contribute to decreasing CO2 emissions.
In your opinion, what are the reasoms for the absence of environmental behaviour in Slovenia?
Well, the key is to escape the communist heritage and to transpose all European legislation in order to become a modern society. But I think it is the question of pushing forward the systems to be compatible with European legislation. And we have still one year remaining with our exemption, but then we will have to fulfill all obligations. This is a reality we share with other new EU member states that joined recently, Slovakia included.
Going back to your question, I think that the awareness of people has risen substantially in recent years, but it is not enough. We still have a lot of work to do, we must talk about this at schools, educate young people, build elements of citizens’ awareness. The main reason why environmental behaviour is absent in new EU member states is the lack of useful information that can be used at home and everywhere else.
If there is some kind of environmental education, is it systematic and targeted or ad hoc and occasional?
This time it is still occasional and ad hoc. But I hope it will become part of the educational system very soon – this idea seems good. Of course, we are gathering experience, using the best practices, but every beginning is difficult – you have to do so many things at the same time.
On the other hand, the sphere of industry is a better example. We can stimulate companies quite effectively and there are also some incentives for eco-design of a wide range of products, from packaging to electric devices. We can also see that the firms start to be responsible for the whole life-cycle of products they sell.
What is now important is communication. Talking about Slovenia, my country, the current challenge is to organise the greatest majority of citizens in order to be part of it. On European level, we can prepare good legislative texts, but even the best texts must have their own followers, who will be ready to implement them in everyday life.
What about targeted campaigns for recycling and resource management in Slovenia?
There was some campaign. I think we would need some more. It was about “ecological islands” – certain colours have been used and citizens had to become aware that certain waste must be placed into certain colours. This is a good example of showing what is important. We have to communicate in a transparent and clear manner nowadays. The citizens must know how waste should be collected and brought to a certain place. And the second important thing is to show ordinary citizens what happens afterwards. Campaigns like this one should be more frequent.
What about waste management in big cities in Slovenia? What do you consider as the main problem?
We are trying now to organise for big cities to integrate waste management systems. There are huge investments in our capital Ljublana now. We drew inspiration from models in some big cities, especially in northern European ones.
But I see here one important problem. In these schemes, there are also incinerators included. People think that all incinerators must be bad, so they are not enthusiastic about them. In Slovenia we did not have any, so this idea is new for our country. But the public is a little bit afraid that this would cause additional problems for environment and human health. This idea is based on the so-called “waste to energy” formula. But under the strict requirements, it is not true that incinerators must always cause problems. On the other hand, it is difficult to explain this to all. This is our big problem in cities.
The second one is the size of our country. It is clear that we cannot have all the facilities in a small area, so we cannot import models that have been successful in much bigger states where a large area means more cost-effectiveness. We have to think in the long-term and decide which solution is sensitive to investments in Slovenia, which one is not.
I am working as a shadow rapporteur for the ALDE Group in the European Parliament on the waste framework directive. A lot of delegations from across Europe have visited me and I have learned during these meetings that waste can be a source of wealth for Europe. It means that it has its own market value and it can be exported and sold. For instance, China buys a lot of European waste, especially certain types. So we must think in terms of our capacities when planning our investments. This is the specific problem we have.
You said the best solution to deal with waste is to combine several approaches. But on the other hand, many companies involved in recycling and resource management say that choosing one approach is the best decision. So if you had to decide, which EU country do you think has the best waste system in general?
It is a subjective opinion, but I would say the Netherlands. They have used a lot of incentives, for instance they have combined technologically effective methods with incentives for citizens. We can say this is an example that works effectively. Belgium also has a really good system. So, it is really difficult to name just one.
We can create the complete list of success stories: Denmark, Sweden, Germany. But the results in the Netherlands are really amazing! The association of Dutch waste operators, dealing mostly with communal waste, is so active also in the field of legislation. It is also common that they can explain the consequence of concrete proposals only a short time after they are published. I think we should learn from this example.