Enough rubbish: Prague waste prevention conference tackles growing global waste problem

September seems to have unofficially been sustainability month in Czechia, with Zero Waste Week, European Sustainable Development Week and Czech Radio’s “Don’t Bin it! 7 Days for the Planet” all taking place within that period. While many of these events and campaigns were international, some were specific to Czechia – like the Waste Prevention 2023 conference that took place in Prague. I went along to find out what Czech companies are doing to reduce their environmental impact.

Photo: Filmbetrachter,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Microplastics accumulating in our bodies, wildlife choking on our trash, and garbage patches three times the size of France floating in our oceans – these are just some of the consequences of the estimated 2 billion tons of trash that we, the world’s population, produce each year. Sadly, with rapid population growth and urbanisation, the World Bank predicts annual waste generation will actually increase by 73% from 2020 levels to 3.88 billion tonnes in 2050.

But there are people trying to fight this trend. And although Czechia may be a small country, it is also trying to do its part to change people’s habits and combat the ever-mounting garbage disposal problem facing the planet.

Jiří Študent and Vladimír Študent | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

Vladimír Študent and his brother Jiří, who together run the Prague-based non-profit Czech Environmental Management Centre, which aims to promote corporate social responsibility and reduce the impact of business activities on the environment and human health, organised the event.

“The conference is the only one of its kind in Czechia. We’re able to hold it thanks to our many partners who support the conference financially and also by giving presentations about how they support reuse of their products so they don’t end up on the rubbish heap or in the incinerator, but rather continue to serve and be useful to people.”

Photo: Honza Ptáček,  Czech Radio

The conference therefore serves firstly as a way of getting people to hear about the topic of waste prevention and giving it more airtime, and secondly as a space for people and companies to share their own real-life experiences of how they reduced waste as inspiration for others, along with practical tips on how to do the same. Vladimír says his vision is a world where businesses take care of the entire life cycle of their products, from beginning to end.

“The most important thing is to avoid creating waste in the first place. In an ideal world, products would be created in such a way that at the end of their life cycle there wouldn’t be any waste leftover but rather it could be re-used as raw material for making a different product. Of course, we’ll never get rid of waste completely, but we still have a lot more ways we could reduce it.”

One way of reducing waste is by reusing materials – for example, plastic. This was illustrated at the conference by Jiří Hudeček, CEO and owner of rPET InWaste.

“We buy flakes from used bottles which have been crushed and washed, so they are very clean PET, and we reprocess this material to make regranulate, which is very similar to virgin plastic. And this material is used again to produce pre-forms, which can be blown into new bottles. And this process can take place again and again. PET is a material which can be recycled forever, or at least for a very long time, if you treat it well.”

Photo: fotoblend,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Although the company itself is Czech, interestingly the plastic it recycles mostly comes from other countries. This is largely because there is no deposit return system on plastic bottles in Czechia as there is in some other countries, so people don’t have as much incentive to recycle them.

“We buy the material from different producers, some from the Czech Republic but we source it mostly from Latvia, Slovakia, Romania and other neighbouring countries where there is a deposit return system. Of course, we aim to source from the Czech Republic, but there is still not as much material as we would need.”

Photo: Clker-Free-Vector-Images,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

However, Hudeček is hopeful that this may change in the future.

“The ministry said that by the end of 2025 the deposit return system should be implemented. Of course, there are lots of discussions about whether to have it or not, but the ministry said it’s not a question of yes or no – the question is about the parameters and how it will work. So I believe by the end of 2025 we will have a deposit return system.”

Other talks focused on incentives for getting people to sort their waste more and better. For example, Lucie Veselá’s presentation from Brno’s Mendel University focused on food waste – and with good reason. By one estimate, food waste makes up to 38% of total household rubbish. Reducing that figure would therefore go a long way to reducing household waste in general.

Photo: Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Lucie says that Czechs want to sort their food waste – but there are barriers to them doing so.

“If we look at the willingness of Czech consumers to sort their food waste, we see they really are very willing. More than 80% of people would like to sort their food waste, but of those 80%, around half still don’t have anywhere to do so. This is one of the main barriers.”

While some presentations focused on how to incentivise people to sort their waste better and recycle more, the fact is that some people still don’t throw their rubbish in a regular bin, let alone a recycling container. Littering is still a major problem, and for that, a different solution is needed – a good old litter-picking campaign.

Miroslav Kubásek runs an initiative called Ukliďme Česko or Let’s Clean Up the Czech Republic, which organises regular volunteer clean-ups around the country.

Photo: Ukliďme Česko

“Our key partners are local organisers who select the places to clean up and organise the events, and we support them in several ways. The first one is knowledge: how to organise it, what is necessary to do, how to manage the collected waste, and so on. The second way is with our webpage, which has an interactive map of all registered clean-ups for communication between organisers and between organisers and volunteers. The third way is the material itself: we send them packages containing bags and gloves for litter collecting.”

Kubásek says that clean-ups can be held any day of the year, but there are two days in particular when his organisation tries to promote nationwide mass clean-ups.

“The first one is in the spring, usually April, and the second date is in September, when we take part in World Cleanup Day, which is the biggest volunteering initiative in the world. It’s always held the third Saturday in September.”

Since the initiative was founded, it has grown massively in popularity.

Photo: Jana Vitásková,  Czech Radio

“We started in 2014 with approximately 6000 volunteers in the clean-ups and today we have our 10-year anniversary. We expect between 220 000 to 230 000 volunteers to participate in clean-ups this year.”

However, although clearing up litter certainly beautifies people’s natural surroundings and prevents animals and birds from ingesting our waste, it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of where all that rubbish should go, says Kubásek.

“The collected waste has to be managed the right way. It often ends up in landfills or incineration plants, but we try to instruct organisers to sort the waste, and the sorted waste goes to recycling facilities. We try to separate it if it makes sense, but if the waste has been outside for a long time, in some cases it’s not possible to recycle it anymore.”

Photo: Ukliďme Česko

While it’s clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of reducing waste, and that companies are really just in their infancy of thinking about product life cycles, what materials they use, and what those materials can be used for once the product is no longer serving its original purpose, at least some are heading in the right direction.

Although it’s pretty easy to be cynical about how much good corporate social responsibility really does and how much of it is greenwashing, Vladimír Študent, one half of the brotherly duo who organised the conference, says that companies actually have a very big incentive to try to reduce their waste.

“Rubbish costs money. So it makes financial sense – if you want to reduce costs, you have to reduce your waste.”