Recycling – the key to solving the Czech waste problem

Illustrative photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio

Like all other developed countries, Czechia has a waste problem. Even though Czech households do not, actually, produce half as much garbage as those in the United States, the government is looking for new ways to increase recycling. Ironically, some towns and companies make a lot of money from traditional landfills. So, it is not always easy to change old practices.

Czechs recycle some 38 percent of their waste,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio
Martin Kamarád is the mayor of Přibyslav, a small town of some 4,000 people located some 160 kilometers south-east of Prague. He shows me around a huge landfill that was developed on the town’s land. Its size is quite astonishing and Martin Kamarád says it is no wonder.

“This landfill has been in use since 1995 and 820,000 tons of mixed municipal waste had been stored here by the end of last year. Besides the main landfill, there are some other sections where we can separate and prepare for recycling some types of waste. We make compost from the biodegradable waste and also separate glass, plastic, paper and other types of waste.”

The landfill near Přibyslav is used by other towns in the area. Waste produced by dozens of thousands of people is buried here. So, I ask, what do the locals think about it? Why should they agree to have this garbage dump near where they live? Didn’t they protest when plans to open it were announced? Mayor Kamarád says they needed a lot of persuasion that this was the right thing to do, but in the end, they agreed.

“I know it may sound strange – pushing a landfill as a project to protect the environment. But you have to understand that under communism there was no proper system of waste disposal. There were some more or less accidental landfills, some of them completely illegal, stinking places often infested with rats and without any sort of environmental supervision. So the situation was truly catastrophic.”

In other words, the landfill helps to manage the waste disposal in an organized manner sanctioned by the government and in accordance with European Union regulations. What is more, it is a significant contribution to the municipal budget of Přibyslav. The town gets paid some 20 euros (or 23 dollars) for each ton of waste disposed of at the landfill. The town’s mayor again:

EU wants to end landfills,  photo: European Commission
“Nearly all the public construction projects in Přibyslav went ahead thanks to the landfill. Our school was renovated for CZK 170 million and the streets were repaved. We now have an outdoor swimming pool and a sports hall. All this was built thanks to the finances we get from the landfill. On average, we have got about CZK 20 million more money in the town’s treasury than we would have had without the landfill. But I would also like to stress that, of course, part of that extra money has been reinvested into the landfill – it has been used for revegetation and upkeep of this facility.”

But the European Union takes a dim view of landfills. They should be phased out gradually. European countries should recycle everything that is recyclable, use new technologies to burn the rest in an environment friendly way and bury only a fraction of the rest. Mayor Kamarád agrees, but explains that it is not easy in his town to install new technologies necessary for such a fundamental change. He is just one of thousands of Czech mayors who have to worry about the future. New legislation is in the works to help them. It is being drafted with help of environmental organizations such as Hnutí Duha – Friends of the Earth Czech Republic. Ivo Kropáček is its chief expert on waste:

“Landfills definitely have to cease being the cheapest method of waste disposal, which they are now. Right now the Czech government charges around 20 euros per ton of waste on a landfill. West European states charge up to three times as much – some even more than 60 euros per ton.”

In fact, the Czech Republic does not produce as much waste as some other developed countries. According to the data of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD, Germans, not to mention Americans, have got a much bigger problem on their hands, in this respect. But in Ivo Kropáček’s view, Czech’s should look for positive examples:

Separating biodegradable waste is becoming increasingly common in Czech cities,  photo: Vít Pohanka
“We Czechs produce on average 280 kilograms of the mixed unrecyclable waste per capita per year. Believe it or not, there are municipalities in Italy that produce some 20 kilos of such waste per person per year. They managed to reduce the amount to less than a tenth of what we produce here in Czechia. How did they achieve that? By a consistent well thought out long-term strategy. They have been working on it for some twenty years, step by step. It needs the cooperation of all sectors of society: public, private and corporate.”

Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done if Czechia wants to manage its waste in an environmentally sound and sustainable way. What is certain is that the garbage problem will not go away by itself.