The Way of Waste in Blagoevgrad: From Dragons to Flat-Faced Flounder

A garbage truck is emptying its cargo. Photo: Erling Rognhaugen

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them” is a quote from the book “Lord of The Rings”.

This is somewhat true in a satirical sense for Blagoevgrad, a city and a municipality of about 70,000 inhabitants, in the country of Bulgaria. It might have felt like the country lost a lot of control, when Bulgaria became a member of EU in 2007. They might have realized how much they actually needed a push in their back, to get a more western state of government. They might just have wanted to put on the Ring to become invisible, to not have an eye look for your weaknesses.

That did not happen.

An area covered in waste, where Roma earn money from plastic bottles. Photo: Erling Rognahaugen

Valley of Waste

Ten kilometers away from the city center rests a landfill. It is about 250 meters wide, and has a height of about 50 meters. It is a living creature. Smoke comes out from random holes, with garbage piled around. As an angry dragon it lies there. From a distance it seems to have bluish shells. A closer look reveals mixed waste scattered both in the dump, but also the surrounding area in trees, river and the road. The landfill is both illegal and legal. The EU has classified it as one of 113 illegal landfills in Bulgaria, according to EU numbers from 2015. But the municipality says it’s only legal to throw your mixed home waste there until Dec. 31, 2017.

Everything here comes from home waste and will soon be flattened out. Photo: Erling Rognhaugen

“Everyone in Blagoevgrad has now mixed garbage in their homes. Glass, paper, plastic, metal goes into one container and you are allowed to throw that garbage in the landfill just outside Blagoevgrad,” says Diana Stefanova, chief expert on ecology in the municipality of Blagoevgrad.

After Dec. 31, 2017, it will no longer be allowed to feed the garbage beast. The garbage has to be transported to other municipalities until August 2018, when a building will be built to separate waste in the municipality, according to the mayor of Blagoevgrad, Atanas Kambitov.

EU Law Rules

Back in 1999, the EU made a directive about landfilled waste. Bulgaria implemented it after they became an EU member in the beginning of 2007. Some time passed by, and in 2014 the European Commission sued Bulgaria for having too many illegal landfills. By then the country had around 113 illegal landfills, and had already received several warnings from the EU, according to an EU press release Jan. 23, 2014.

Also in 2014 but later, Bulgaria created its first national waste management plan to deal with illegal landfills, and to follow EU law about separating waste and recycling. The plan was developed with funds from the EU. Because of the new law, now five experts from the municipality of Blagoevgrad are leading a project to separate the garbage inside the municipality instead of outside. This project is set to be finished in 2020, and has a budget of roughly 35 million Euros. Some of this money will come from the EU, but the approximate amount is unknown because the application for the project has not yet been sent in, says Elena Pandurska, an expert on ecology and one of five in the team that is working towards separating garbage in Blagoevgrad.

“The national legislation sets targets that we need to meet by 2020. So we are working in that direction,” says Pandurska.

Changing Behavior

“We should first create the attitude to separate waste, and then people will change their behavior” says Kambitov.

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ronald Harvey, from the American University in Bulgaria believes in a different method to change behaviour. “Most people think that you need to change their bahaviour by educating them about recycling. Everybody knows about recycling. Make it stupid simple, and then you will get people to do what you want”, says Professor Harvey.

“I’ve talked to my student, and asked: Why do you not recycle? and they will say ‘because it just goes into the same garbage bin anyway, they don’t actually recycle’. But what if I could assure you that it will get recycled, would you then throw it in the right container, and they answer ‘no I don’t care’, says Professor Harvey.

There has been placed yellow and green containers around Blagoevgrad to seperate waste. These have been there since 2012. Alongside them is a mixed waste container. A quick look on the containers over a period of a week, seems to comply with my suspicions; the mixed waste is always a lot fuller than the yellow and green ones. And some of the mixed waste ends up feeding the dragon.

Is The Waste Recycled?

Yes. If you throw your garbage in either the green (glass) or yellow (paper, metal and plastic) container, the garbage gets transported to Pernik and separated. When that is done it is given to companies who can reuse the material.

After 2020 Blagoevgrad is supposed to have their own facility to separate garbage. Then the waste will be transported to Pernik to become recycled.

“Are the people of Blagoevgrad ready to recycle?” I ask the mayor.
“Blagoevgrad are 100% not ready to recycle now, we need to change their attitude first” says the mayor.

A lot of people are still using the illegal garbage dump, according to Pandurska. This might be because it is just the easiest option.

Kambitov says “I want to make it more costly for those who throw more waste, and less for those who don’t, but this we will think more about when we have created an attitude for separating waste”.

Flat Faced Flounder

“There in tons of waste in the landfill outside Blagoevgrad, all we can do is to flatten it out, and let nature do the rest”, says Pandurska
A machine flattening out the area, after a garbage truck have been there. Photo: Erling Rognhaugen

Romani people are collecting bottles, and other waste they can earn money from, in the landfill.

There is no illigal or harmfull waste here, said on of the Romani people at the landfill.

The containers to separate waste in Blagoevgrad have been in the municipality five years now. And still the people of Blagoevgrad, according to the mayor are still not ready to make the green shift. Are they just giving the recycling job to gypsies? Or are they bound by the power to make easy choices just like the rest of us?

All quotes are transcribed and recorded from a translator. Because of this words and meaning might differ from the original quote.

Originally published at on September 27, 2017.

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