The question "where to put them?" is even more pressing now. (ČTK)The question “where to put it?” is even more pressing now. (ČTK)

It is a well-known fact – the Czech Republic is Europe’s number one recycler and sorter of plastics. However, the successful and profitable system got stuck now. The economic crisis has decreased interest in sorted waste, which is now piling up in the warehouses of companies dealing with the collection of recyclable waste. So far, nobody has been panicking and calling for the overflowing yellow, blue and green containers to be hauled away to waste dumps. However, the chain has been interrupted. And the question “where to put it?” is even more pressing.

Where did the Chinese boats disappear to?

Secondary materials have become popular in the past years and an excellent business with these materials has developed. It solved several problems at once. It was not necessary to transport the piling waste to waste dumps where it would lie for hundreds of years, but it was used to produce useful things again – fleece jackets, benches or noise protection walls were made from plastic, toilet paper, cardboard, binders etc. were made from paper. Of course that technology and energy were costly, but it still payed off. Not only were there no fees for waste dumps and incinerators; it also helped slow down the shrinking of natural resources, which are expensive to extract, transport and process.

The advantages of recycled materials were evident especially when the prices of oil and other resources were rising sharply. In recent years, China has boosted the demand for sorted materials. Their boats were coming to European and American ports loaded with goods and returned with thousands of tonnes of waste. One kilogram of “golden nuggets”, that is in the best case plastic bottles that could be further processed, cost up to CZK 5. Municipalities, companies collecting waste, as well as middlemen, who were sending lines of lorries to Chinese customers in Hamburg, were earning in this system. And domestic companies processing waste had to fight with competition that was paying more.

However, with the beginning financial crisis the situation has changed. As the demand for goods decreased, China’s interest in materials also decreased and suddenly there was a surplus of recyclable waste in Europe. The British and Irish, who themselves have basically no processing capacities, exported their waste to Europe and so the prices went down. At the same time the prices of oil and other primary materials went down, so the companies now prefer to buy primary materials than the more expensive recyclables.

No tragedy, please

Let’s sum it up: on the one hand people keep sorting their waste and firms transport it from dustbins to sorting halls, but here the circle is suddenly disrupted and it has no continuation. Two essential problems arise. Who is going to pay for the collection and storing of waste, when sales profit was an important element of financing of the whole system? And secondly, where to put the accumulating piles of pressed packages?

So far, everything has been functioning in such a way that the collection and processing of sorted waste was subsidised by packaging companies through EKO-KOM, a state-accredited company. Another source was money from the sale of materials. Municipalities therefore did not pay anything for the collection of sorted materials, on the contrary, they profited from it in fat years. This has now changed. Problems with the accumulation of recycled materials have fallen on the head of the waste collecting companies and these now want the municipalities to cover at least part of their costs. Although municipalities do not like it, they are gradually coming to terms with having to make some contribution.

The threat of big demands on municipal coffers should be prevented also with the agreement of package producers and EKO-KOM on the increase of subsidies to municipalities by 15%. According to the law on waste, producers must secure a certain percentage of recycling. If they did not continue sorting the waste, they would not meet the limits set by law and they would have to pay fines. Although municipalities are not obliged to separate waste, they have basically no other alternative. Sorted waste cannot be burnt, because there are three incinerators in the Czech Republic and all of them are operating at full capacity. Dumping of separated material is forbidden by the law on waste.

The last one in the line

But where should the superfluous recyclable material be exported? Municipalities are still waiting to see if the situation will change. Waiting for customers buying paper can be the most painful, as the material becomes damp easily, it becomes moldy and it loses its value quickly. Plastic can lie exposed to the elements for several years, under the condition that scrapyards are not completely overloaded with it.

The Environment Ministry did not want to wait for the invisible hand of the market and came with ideas to awaken the whole chain of waste management business with state incentives. Many proposals resemble the overall remedies suggested for fighting the crisis. The ministry wants to help the recycling companies by lowering the income tax and allowing faster write-offs. At the European level, Czechs are suggesting to lower the VAT on recycled products. An attempt to boost demand could have a relatively big impact.

“We are suggesting that tenders for government contracts involve a condition that certain share of products from recycled materials are used,” said Daniel Vondrouš, the head of advisors to the environment minister. Companies have had such a possibility but were not using it. If such a provision was included in cabinet’s ruling, recycling companies could benefit from government contracts and start using the materials from scrapyards.

The ministry is preparing similar measures also for the use of paper. State offices should be allegedly using more recycled paper. The question is whether other ministries will follow the environment ministry’s suggestions – all of them are mainly looking forward to having their budgets being increased with money from the anti-crisis package. There is something people and municipalities can do: sort more than they have been doing until now. This means, for example, distributing colourful plastic bags to every household, each of them designated for specific types of waste, and when the households fill these bags, they can leave them in front of the house to be collected. Recycling companies are interested in those materials that are more solid and clean, as it is more easily processed from the technological and financial point of view.

Another – long-term – solution was suggested by the association of towns and municipalities of the Czech Republic (SMO). SMO says that besides using waste as a material it would be also profitable to transform it to energy. In other words, to produce heat and electricity from burning the waste. “It is a common way of using waste employed, for example, in France,” said Pavel Drahovzal from the association. Such a facility is still missing in the Czech Republic and building it would require some six years. The association is planning to build five to six of such facilities in regional cities and is demanding several billions from the state fund for the environment. That’s where it is clashing with the ministry. “Burning of recycled waste is the most expensive form of processing,” said Daniel Vondrouš. The ministry has CZK 10 billion from European funds which it is planning to send to municipalities to support the “plastic bag system” or waste sorting assemblies.