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 known 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 they 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. But that did not happen.

An area covered in waste, and gypsies to earn some money from plastic bottles. Photo: Erling Rognahaugen

Valley of waste

10 kilometers away from the city centrum rests a landfill. It is about 250 meters wide, seen from Google Maps and has a height of about 50 meters. It is a living creature. Smoke is coming 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 in the surrounding area in trees, in the river and the road. The landfill is both illegal and legal. EU has classified it as one of 113 (numbers from 2015) illegal landfills in Bulgaria, but according to the municipality it is only legal to throw your mixed home waste there until 31. December 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 that date it will no longer be allowed to feed the garbage beast. The garbage has to be transported to other municipalities until August the same year, when it will be built a building to separate waste in the municipality, according to the mayor of Blagoevgrad, Atanas Kambitov.

EU law rules

Back in 1999, EU made a directive about landfilled waste. Bulgaria implemented it after they become EU members 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 it had around 113 illegal landfills, and had already received several warnings from EU, according to an EU press release 23. January 2014.

Also in 2014 but later, Bulgaria created their first national waste management plan, developed with funds from the EU, to deal with illegal landfills, and to follow EU law about separating waste and recycling. Five people from the Municipality of Blagoevgrad are now working on a project to separate the garbage from Blagoevgrad inside the municipality instead of outside, and to follow the national laws. This project are set to be finished in 2020, and have a roughly budget of 35 million euros. Some of this money will come from the EU, but the approximate amount is unknown because that the application for the project has not yet been sent in.

“The national legislation sets targets that we need to meet by 2020. So we are working in that direction” says Elena Pandurska, an expert on ecology and one of five in the team that is working towards separating garbage.

Changing behavior

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

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ronald Harvey, from the American University in Bulgaria believes in another method to get people to do what you want. “Most people think that you need to change their attitude 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 go 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’.

Outside bigger buildings and around the municipality there have been both yellow and green containers since 2012. Alongside them is a mixed waste container. A quick look on the containers every day, seem 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), the garbage now goes to Pernik, 80km north of Blagoevgrad, and is separated there, and then given to companies that recycle the waste that they can use.

After 2020 Blagoevgrad is supposed to have their own facility to separate garbage, and then it will be transported elsewhere, to get 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 the mentality for separating waste is there”.

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

Gypsies working in the landfill to earn money by collecting bottles, and other waste that it is possible to get some money from, have told me that there is nothing harmful waste in that landfill, also after a look around I could not see any toxins. That makes it a bit better when they will make the angry dragon into a flat faced flounder. But all of this takes time, while it has been containers to separate waste in Blagoevgrad for five years, the people of Blagoevgrad seems still not ready to make a 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.

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