Expert says Czechs can still improve waste performance

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki

According to EU statistics, Czechs are some of the best in Europe for separating communal waste, including paper, plastic and milk cartons. But when it comes to recycling and minimising the amount of waste we produce, there is still a long way to go, says Soňa Jonášová of the Institute of Circular Economy. For several years now, her institute has been helping Czech municipalities and businesses to move from linear to circular economy by adopting at least some of its key elements:

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“We have to prioritize regenerative resources, which means both energies and materials should be coming from renewable, reusable or nontoxic materials.

“Secondly, they have to be designed to last as long as possible, to be reusable or recyclable or reparable. Otherwise we are producing waste.

“We have to do our best to preserve and extend the lifetime of the products’ usage, which is not really happening nowadays. That’s something we have to keep in mind to be able to rotate these materials in a circle as long as possible.

“If we do produce waste, we have to think out of the box and not perceive it as waste but as something that can be used again.”

How did you yourself become acquainted with the idea of circular economy?

“I studied abroad and we have frequently discussed sustainability, waste as a resource about self-sufficiency of farms or businesses and I thought it made sense to do it this way.

“Even though many people regard ecology and agro-ecology as an alternative system, I think it is the right way to do things.

“I studied agriculture and then I moved on to technical cycles. Now we are talking about waste and recycling, but the principles are still the same.

“We have to keep the value circulating within the society. Not only the value of materials, but also the principles which enable us to close the cycle. The system has worked for ages, until we started to make it linear, but it doesn’t work this way.

“Czechs are good at waste separation, but they do not recycle.”

“That’s why I decided to start with promoting circular economy principles. I was talking to people, asking about their opinion, and I realized it made sense to all of us, basically.”

Two years ago, you established the Institute of Circular Economy in the Czech Republic. What are the main aims of the organisation?

“We have three pillars. The first one is education: we have to raise awareness and explain what circular economy is about. We have wide target groups, from citizens, to companies and municipalities. We organize various stakeholder meetings, conferences and seminars, or just publicly speak about this topic.

“Second, we help companies and municipalities them to make space for circular economy within their business or within everyday life. We provide consultancy or help them set up a strategy for its implementation to really make it as practical as possible.

“And the third pillar is about cooperation, which I think it is the key element for circular economy being implemented in the Czech Republic. We debate with different stakeholders, trying to find the best way to cooperate in order to really close the cycle.”

How good are Czechs in recycling?

Soňa Jonášová,  photo: archive of the Institute of Circular Economy
“There is a difference between recycling and waste separation. Czechs are good at waste separation, which means that we separate our waste into paper, glass and plastics. But we don’t recycle.

“We can recycle organic waste by composting, returning the material back to the soil. You can really recycle that material, put it back to the soil and grow your own food. That is recycling, in other words, closing the cycle.

“But we don’t recycle other materials. That is something done by other companies, we need special technologies to do that and we are not very good at it. We recycle only about 30 to 40 percent of plastic. It is the same for the whole of EU.

“It is not just a problem of technologies but it is related to eco-design. Many products are not designed to be recycled. They are full of hazardous or toxic materials. We cannot do anything else but use them for producing energy, which is still better than land filling.”

One of your projects was to analyse communal waste in one of Prague’s district – Prague 7. Why have you done that and what have you discovered?

“Whenever we start cooperating with new municipalities, we first have to go through their waste. In Prague seven we discovered that there was a lot of organic waste in their garbage so we suggested home composting to the local people.

“Whenever we do something, we first discuss the idea with the mayor and with other representatives of the municipalities to see what kind of possibilities we have.

“So first we have to analyse waste, and then, such as in case of Prague 7, we started with home composting and other pilot projects.”

The district of Prague 7 is pretty progressive, but what about smaller towns and villages around the Czech Republic? Are they interested in implementing at least some of the elements of circular economy?

“We should perceive waste as something that can be used again.”

“Yes, they are. I was very surprised at the beginning, because I was told that it will be very hard to persuade people to do something. But actually, it isn’t.

“If you have mixed communal waste, you have to pay for it. But once you separate those materials that can be recycled, you can get money for it.

“Municipalities are also interested in opening re-use centres or in any kind of additional activities, where people can bring objects that can be re-used by other people.

“Those materials are not going to your waste, you are helping both the environment and the people and you are saving money at the same time.”

So would you say Czechs are willing to adopt more sustainable lifestyle as long as they have conditions to do so?

“Definitely. I have many personal experiences with talking to people and explaining the new system of waste collection. We talk about the money and the municipal budget and we explain why waste is such a big problem if it is not separated.

“We also explain how it is related to the environment and what it means to land fill our waste, losing resources, energy and polluting environment. At the end people go home and say: it makes sense and now we know that, so why wouldn’t we do it?

“So I am pretty sure if we keep explaining things to people and if we have the support of the media, people will believe it and they will do it.”

You mentioned landfills. Is this a big problem in the Czech Republic?

Illustrative photo: European Commission
“Landfilling is a big problem in general and in the Czech Republic it is very cheap. We pay less for landfilling than for incinerations. Why should you look for some more environmental ways of treating your waste if landfilling is so cheap?

“That’s something we would like to change through new waste legislation. Once organic waste goes to landfill, methane is produced, which is 23 times more aggressive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“Also, some landfills are not well isolated, and leak into the ground water. So it is like a bomb waiting for the future, and we definitely have to stop this.”

The European Commission recently approved a so-called Circular Economy Package to help businesses and consumers to ease the transition from a linear to circular economy. How long can such transition take and are you optimistic that such changes will really take place?

“I am very optimistic in adopting circular economy principles in general. Even without the support from EU or national legislation, we can still do that, creating new business models, creating more money and becoming more resilient.

“Some large companies, such as IKEA, are already implementing those principles, so it definitely makes sense. But thanks to European Commission we have support for our activities and we have a proof that we are doing the right thing.”