Field Note: Communities

What does recycling mean to you? Recently, I watched a preview for a new documentary called Landfill Harmonic highlighting one community’s creative solution to a waste problem in Paraguay. It’s a beautiful idea that turns recycling into art. I won’t give away too many details because you can check out the video here (http://vimeo.com/52129103). One thing I will say about the community in Paraguay is that their vision is truly inspiring. Our world needs more innovative solutions like this. 

Disposal of solid waste is a huge, worldwide problem.  However, in Macedonia I’ve seen and felt the problem much more deeply. Earlier this year there was a steady, heavy rainfall for three days. In Štip, this created a lot of problems. The two main rivers flooded, causing the sewers to run over into the streets and contaminating the water. For the next week the entire city was without running water. Once the water was turned back on, it was another two weeks before it was safe to drink. The inability to use or drink the water from the tap during this time highlighted for me in a very real way the critical issue of waste management.

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From research and through talking with friends and students, I’ve discovered the most critical environmental issue in the Republic of Macedonia is waste management. Macedonians would like to join the European Union. In order to be considered though, there must be better solid waste management that complies with standards in the European Union. According to friends and students I’ve talked to, people in Macedonia are aware that there have been new, stricter laws put in place within the past two to three years against littering and even spitting in public.

However, the structures for trash removal and recycling need a lot of work.

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In Štip, there are separate bins for recycling, but according to people I’ve talked with, there isn’t an official organized structure for recycling. In fact, one of my friends mentioned that the only people who are recycling in Macedonia are the Roma. Roma people live on the fringe of communities in Macedonia and other parts of Europe. While walking around town, I often see people from the Roma community searching dumpsters.

I’ve seen young men carrying large, full plastic sacks balanced on the handlebars of their bicycles. I’ve seen elderly men and women from the Roma community with bulging sacks of recycling on their backs. I’ve also seen young women going from house to house picking out plastic bottles from people’s garbage cans. People from the Roma community search the garbage in dumpsters for recyclable items that can be sold locally to landfills for money. For example, on the way to my university campus, there’s a large landfill. It has everything from old cars and tires to paper juice cartons.

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As a result of trying to join the European Union, the Macedonian government has created and implemented laws in an attempt to better deal with waste management, but there is a large gap between policy and practice. To find out more about the waste management process in Macedonia, I talked with my friend Marija from the American Corner. She put me in contact with a member of the Ecologists’ Movement of Macedonia. This movement was established in 1990, and includes 23 local, non-government organizations dedicated to taking better care of the environment. The headquarters is located in Skopje.

From Viktorija, my contact within the Ecologists’ Movement of Macedonia, I found out that although laws and regulations have been put into place for better waste management, outdated practices and lack of regulation on landfills continues to make waste management a critical issue in Macedonia. Through e-mail correspondence Viktorija explained:

Regarding waste management we have “The Waste Law” and other waste related laws. These laws only regulate the disposal of waste by households, individuals, companies and other institutions. There are also other laws that require special disposal of hazardous medical waste and disposal of packaging waste. 

According to these laws individuals, households and companies have to take care and properly dispose [of] their waste. The management with the waste after the disposal is left to the public companies for waste management in each city. These companies manage on which days the waste will be picked up, transported and disposed into the landfills. 

However no law considers the most important thing in waste management, the management of landfills. The landfills…are open and are close to the cities. Usually these are wild spots chosen by the transporter of the waste. We have no recycling strategy nor companies doing this, just open, wild landfills which further pollute the land, the underground waters and the air. Thus you may notice waste spread around the country’s green fields whenever you go traveling somewhere…

…hospitals take care to properly dispose [of] waste in order to avoid law fines. And after that the medical waste is taken by transporters, handled and thrown away with the rest of the communal waste on the same landfills. 

This isn’t the best news, but there is hope. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Macedonia, and one of the major reasons I love this country is because of its natural beauty. From Lake Ohrid to Matka Canyon near Skopje to the beautiful mountain ranges full of hiking opportunities, the natural beauty of Macedonia is something worth protecting.

As my friend Ana told me, the best solution is education. In Macedonia, students are just now starting to be taught in school how to take better care of the environment. Growing up in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Ana didn’t learn about waste management or recycling in school. More needs to be done, but education is a step in the right direction. My hope for Macedonia is that people will begin to better appreciate the natural resources available here, and that more people living in Macedonia will become aware of the treasures within their own backyard.

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