Prof. Goran Vujic Discusses Waste Management in Serbia

Country Spotlight: The Waste & Recycling Situation in Serbia

In the run up to the ISWA World Congress in Novi Sad, WMW asked Prof. Goran Vujic about the current situation and future ambitions for waste and recycling in Serbia…

What is the current situation for solid waste management in Serbia – collection rates, recycling rates, type of final disposal, etc.?
The waste management system in Serbia is based on waste collecting, transporting and landfilling. In this regard, Serbia is no different than other countries in Southeast Europe, where landfilling is still the predominant method. Decades of lack of care and neglect of the issue of waste started changing with democratic changes and changes to the economic and social system.

Every social change is met with inertia and resistance, which leads to slow progress and improvement of the waste management system. However, some good results have been achieved in Serbia: a certain number of state of the art landfills have been built, the EPR system has been introduced and although recycling is low (10%), it has an upward tendency.

There are a lot of factors affecting the slow development of the waste management system, but one of the main factors is the economic situation, which is improving. With bigger GDP growth, conditions will be met for faster modernisation of the waste management system.

In Serbia, as well as in the entire region, there are excellent solutions that are the result of enthusiasm and campaigns of individuals, who manage to achieve remarkable results in some parts of the waste management system despite numerous obstacles.

Who delivers waste services in Serbia, and what does the market look like for service providers?
In the entire region of Southeast Europe, which belonged to the Eastern Bloc in the past century and was under communism, there are very few private companies that collect waste in cities. The percentage of private companies in Serbia is about 11%, while the rest are Public Utility companies owned by cities.

One of the problems in the slow improvement of the waste management system is the fact that these companies are burdened with redundant workers and are extremely inefficient. Waste fee is charged differently per members, per square metre of living space and the average amount per household is about EUR 40 on the annual level.

Not all citizens are able to afford paying even such a low waste fee, which makes work of waste collecting companies much more difficult. The existence of private companies, even a small amount of them, shows that if business is built profitably, there is space for private companies, because they have been surviving for many years, expanding their operations.

With the introduction of the EPR system, possibilities have opened up for founding private companies in the field of recycling of WEEE, plastic, paper and tires. Conditions in the waste market in Serbia are difficult, just like in any other country in transition, but the presence of private companies shows that they can survive and develop in the Serbian waste market by studying all the characteristics of the market and through gradual development.

What are the mid-term objectives for the industry in Serbia?
Serbia is in the process of EU accession, with negotiations being underway. At the start, the tasks included: transposing all EU directives, defining deadlines for reaching WFD goals and for diverting biodegradable waste from landfills from the Landfill Directive, as well as defining other specific goals from other EU directives.

The main goal is certainly to expand the scope of waste collection to its maximum, as well as to stop illegal dumping of waste. With the construction of three modern regional centres, Belgrade (700,000 t/year), Niš (120,000 t/year) and Novi Sad (200,000 t/year), which include over 40% of waste in Serbia, the percentage of waste treatment and recycling in Serbia would be significantly improved.

Belgrade and Niš are in the stage of announcing public-private partnerships (PPP), while Novi Sad is in the process of financing by EU through an IPA grant. One of the goals is also to keep implementing the EPR system and to strengthen it, primarily in the field of packaging waste.

The EPR system has been present in Serbia for 5 years, while packaging waste recycling is currently at the level of 30%. According to the law, this percentage is to be increased to 60% by 2019, which is more than 50% required by WFD and 55% required by the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.

The EPR system has been introduced in Serbia in the field of WEEE, waste tires, waste oils and car batteries and has been producing good results.

What steps are being taken to achieve these?
There are two ways to improve the waste management system and both are connected to Serbia’s EU accession and accepting the EU waste hierarchy. One is through Public-Private Partnership arrangements. Two big cities have opted for this model – one of them being Belgrade, which is looking for a strategic partner with the help of IFC.

This process is in its final stage, while the partner will be selected among big global companies such as Veolia, Suez, Urbaser and FCC. The second model includes reorganisation of PUCs and applying for EU funds. Several cities have already made such arrangements – Užice, Subotica and Novi Sad is supposed to make it soon.

The combination of PPPs and EU and national grants will enable rapid progress of the waste management sector in Serbia and enable the presence of stable European companies. This will lead to improving services for citizens and to waste treatment that is not based on landfilling but viewing waste as a resource. It is very important that these projects be carried out gradually, taking into account the affordability of modern waste treatment for citizens.

And the longer term objectives (10+ years)?
Long-term goals in Serbia are in line with the goals of EU directives and in line with short-term goals: complete diversion of biodegradable waste, energy production from MBT and anaerobic digesters, as well as construction of two incinerators.

Reducing landfilling to its minimum is the goal that is in line with the principles of circular economy and that is included in strategic documents of the Republic of Serbia. I do not mean to sound sarcastic, but the problem of long-term goals are not the long-term goals themselves, but the slow realisation of short-term goals, which is why deadlines for long-term goals are constantly pushed back.

What are the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges can be classified into a few groups - social, technical and economic. When it comes to social challenges, there are two biggest ones. The first one refers to the changed perception of waste; perception that waste is useless must be changed into perception that waste is a resource.

By perceiving waste as a resource, support will be provided for carrying out circular economy projects, recycling and other projects that approach waste as a resource rather than as something useless. The second challenge is how to prioritize waste.

The issue of waste is neglected among all other questions that burden the society, and prioritizing this issue is a precondition for its solution. Reaching the EU goals demands implementation of new technologies; it is necessary to change the system of collecting, prepare technical and plan documentation and educate people in managing and operating new technologies, which will be a great challenge in the upcoming period. Finally, there are the economic challenges in the form of providing investment funds.

However, since technologies in the waste sector are not a perpetuum mobile and require financing during the work, i.e. providing a part of operating costs through the waste fee that citizens pay, sustainability must be provided, which means affordability of the waste fee for citizens.

How can they be overcome?
It has already been said how the system improvement in waste management should occur in Serbia: by building regional centres, introducing PPPs and EU grants, but the essential detail which is required for acceleration is political will.

Just like a debate on where to find EUR 68,000 billion by 2040 to fulfil the promises started after the Paris Climate Change Conference, the text written by Christopher Flavelle says that not even moral pressure on people will help avoid inertia and resistance to introduction of changes and defeat the sceptics.

As Martin Sandbu wrote in an article in the Financial Times, it is simpler to focus on the economic profit from those changes because the funds required for resolving the climate change issue amount to only 4% of gross world product, but their application will create new jobs, new investments and a new economic momentum. It is difficult to base changes in the waste management system on enthusiasm, heroism or love of a country.

Only when authorities realize that gradual improvement of waste management is a chance to develop a new industrial branch that brings new jobs can we also expect stronger political support to these changes, which is still the main precondition.

ISWA World Congress
Specific features of every waste management system, current good solutions, the possibility of applying and finding cheaper solutions and sharing the experience will be brought by the ISWA WORLD CONGRESS Novi Sad Serbia from September 19 to 21, where over 1,200 scientists, experts and decision makers from the region and the whole world will help Serbia and other countries of the region consolidate and accelerate their way to improvement of the waste management system.

Prof. Goran Vujic, Chairman ISWA World Congress 2016, Novi Sad.