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Meet the activists leading Ukraine’s battle for recycling

As a volunteer initiative, No Waste Ukraine was founded in 2015. Photo:
Meet the activists leading Ukraine’s battle for recycling
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Michael Garrood
Ukraine has a trash problem. Most goes to overflowing landfills, and only roughly 3% is recycled, while the country’s industry imports sorted waste from abroad. While an effective national strategy has yet to emerge, ecoactivists are fed up with waiting and opened their own grassroots recycling facility. They have an ambitious goal — to turn Ukraine into a country where 100% of wastes is recycled. And slowly, the culture is beginning to change, as well.

When the world started to care about trash it was already very late — there was so much of it that plastic islands started forming in the oceans. Recycling was introduced in European countries as a solution and became a part of the culture. In Ukraine, recycling is still considered something extraordinary. While the state and authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem, activists and ordinary citizens are taking the initiative to liberate the country from the trash. Euromaidan Press spoke to Yevhenia Aratovska, the head of No Waste Ukraine, a pioneer organization in recycling waste.

As a volunteer initiative, No Waste Ukraine was founded in 2015.

“Understanding the circumstances – corruption, the state’s weak institutional capacity, the problems with the authorities’ budget and leadership, we realized that it will last for a long time and there will be more landfills. The movement from below started when responsible people decided they didn’t want to take part in burying waste at dumps. We are ready to recycle waste despite everything, not having convenient infrastructure. Because we want to take our waste under our control and send it for recycling,” Aratovska says.

Yevhenia Aratovska, the head of No Waste Ukraine. Photo: No Waste Ukraine Facebook page.

With this thought in mind, in 2018 the No Waste Ukraine team opened their recycling facility in Kyiv which became the first of its kind in Ukraine. There they gathered a diverse palette of secondary materials for recycling. They also organized a variety of services preventing even organic food waste from ending up in the dumps. Overall, No Waste Ukraine divides waste into more than 40 different categories which they take separately for recycling.

No Waste Ukraine survives and develops without government support

At first, the team planned to develop these activities as social entrepreneurship – to provide secondary resources, to sell them, to make money on them, and cover the team’s current expenses. However, learning more about it, they found out that the more secondary materials one collects, the more one ends up having to spend on rent, employees, logistics, etc. The organization of a separate collection of waste is unprofitable in all countries.

Aratovska explains that there are only two profitable processes related to waste — taking waste from houses to landfills and producing products from secondary materials which would cost 300% or more than secondary materials. For example, taking 1,000 tons of cardboard for $1000 to a factory and making cardboard boxes for $100,000. However, such production needs big factories.

The team initially found that it did not bring in enough money. Therefore, they started to collaborate with responsible companies that understand that they are a part of the waste story — people buy their products and then the packages are thrown into landfill sites.

“For them, it is painful to observe. They realize that a separate garbage collection has to be developed. As it is very slowly developed by the state, efforts should be invested in social projects which do it more efficiently and visibly. It also gives a chance that the state will move faster in adopting corresponding bills,” Aratovska explains.

Different companies already supported the activities of No Waste Ukraine.

No Waste Ukraine in Verkhovyna, Carpathian Mountains. Photo:

For example, in 2019 with the support of the Coca-Cola Foundation, No Waste Ukraine gathered 400 people who cleaned almost 5 tons of rubbish in the Carpathian Mountains.

Project activities of companies that relate to the mission of No Waste Ukraine have offered a route towards funding the initiative.

Another source of funding the team came up with was providing services.

“We realized that just selling goods or organizing projects will not provide us with enough investment for development. Therefore, we suggested services like No Waste Ukraine courier. It started during the first lockdown [spring 2020] when people were sitting at home and wanted to sort waste. But the facility was closed. So what to do? We started collecting requests and taking out sorted waste from people’s apartments. And the number of such people was quite high.”

Afterward, one new service appeared – a better solution for plastics that are not recyclable.

“We found a recycler – a company that disposes of hazardous waste and we order them to utilize our non-liquid waste for money.”

Also, No Waste Ukraine has its own shop with goods replacing plastic.

“And there are more and more areas where we can earn. Because for us it’s important to not only cover our current expenses but to have a resource for development. We don’t want to hold our hands out to businesses or the government.”

Authorities turn blind eye to waste problem

Local activists don’t find the support of local authorities to fight waste. Photo:

Meanwhile, the government almost entirely ignores the problem.

“If we talk about the government, there is only one answer – the state does not have a tool to finance such projects. You can write grant applications, you can participate in some competitions there, but it all takes time, and often in our team there is simply no extra person who would do just that. Also, it is necessary to wait for a result for 3-6 months or more.”

Local authorities are also not eager to solve the waste problem. Aratovska describes that there are local activists in the regions. Mostly they are young parents or women on maternity leave who have time. They see dirty streets or smell rubbish near their houses and worry about their kids. They start to write posts about it.

“They contact us, they want to conduct some educational activities at their level in kindergartens or schools and to establish some system. However, when they come to a district administration or village council, the authorities have nothing to do but throw up their hands saying that people are poor and they will not recycle and that it is impossible to tell them.”

Aratovska concludes that there is often resistance from the side of the authorities. First, it is related to skepticism. Second, to the lack of money in a budget.

“Recycling is not always a priority as it leads to expenditure without an opportunity to receive a fast result.”

According to Aratovska, those examples of recycling in small towns often end up with a problem that people don’t recycle the right way, and it leads to some kind of disappointment, the activists burn out.

“Locally, there is a lack of government will to interact with the active community to create at least something. Let’s start with at least something. But they don’t have a strategy. They start to dream about some factories and know nothing about the power of small steps at all.”

Legislation on waste yet to appear

Inside the No Waste Ukraine recycling station. Photo: No Waste Ukraine.

So far the process of writing a comprehensive law regarding waste is still ongoing. Often it was more a fight than work. Aratovska remembers that initially the bill was a very good initiative supported by the international community. Aratovska’s team as well as other NGOs worked on it. However, when the government in Ukraine changed, the bill had to be reregistered. Afterward two more alternative bills were registered. As reported by Aratovska, the two bills were purely lobbyist and monopolistic in nature. Moreover, the one the activists were working on after getting to a parliamentary environmental committee faced an attack. Mostly, it was spoiled by the Servant of the People MP Oleksandr Yurchenko.

In summer 2020, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an investigative institution called to fight top corruption, caught the MP’s assistant giving a bribe. It is considered that the MP himself was related to a criminal scheme. According to the law enforcers, Yurchenko asked $13,000 for making proposals to the draft law on the processing of solid household waste. In the future, another $200,000 should be added to this amount to bribe MPs and the committee members. In March 2021, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau opened the materials of the case to Yurchenko which means that the detectives completed the investigation.

The spoiled bill was still presented for the first reading in parliament. Aratovska says that the expert community saw the amendments just before.

“We faced a difficult choice – to bring it down because it contained unacceptable amendments, we would never agree with them, or we could have accepted it for the work before the second reading to finalize. All the monopoly articles had to be taken from it and we would receive a law. Otherwise, we would have to go two years back and start working on a new law. And we have decided to support it, but with the condition that these harmful amendments be removed.”

Therefore, the bill was supported in the first reading. Now the work on it before the second reading is ongoing. Aratovska says that the experts and different stakeholders are involved in the discussion.

Pandemic aggravates the problem

The lines to the No Waste Ukraine recycling station during the quarantine in spring 2020. Photo from No Waste Ukraine Facebook page

Meanwhile, Ukraine as well as the rest of the world faced the problem of additional waste due to the pandemic.

“Of course, we need to understand the issue of priorities. There is a priority of human life and the priorities of everything else. Of course, if you look at the long-term strategy, the waste we throw away will affect human health in one way or another. Or it will make uninhabitable the area where the person lives through the same waste. But since in our society, so far there is no deep understanding of how waste affects human life as it has a delayed negative effect, everyone thinks only about the first priority – a person’s life and health.”

Unfortunately, instead of looking at the situation from a long-term perspective, the government’s short-term solutions make it only worse.

“We understand that there should be masks but there should also be solutions to their collection. This is like with plastic bags. We got so used to them that it seems that it is impossible to do without them. And now Ukrzaliznytsya [state’s railway carrier] wants to introduce another monster under the guise of quarantine – disposable plastic bedding [for night trains], from plastic fabric. More and more Pandora’s boxes are opening as society starts to get used to disposable items. And all this is justified by the safety of human health. But in reality, there is no caring for human health. Because people will still suffer after some time from the effects of clogging.”

The culture is changing anyway

Still, the culture and the attitude of people themselves are changing. Aratatovska explains that it is the sad events concerning landfills that have attracted public attention. For example, a fire in 2016 at a landfill near the village of Velyki Hrybovychy, Lviv Oblast cost the lives of three firefighters. The media started to cover it and also mention the activities of No Waste Ukraine where its team explained that it is possible to sort waste in Ukraine.

Aratovska and her team have an ambitious goal to turn Ukraine from a country where most garbage is dumped at its 30-40,000 landfill sites to one where all waste is recycled or composted. She is confident that infrastructure allowing to recycle 100% of the waste already exists in Ukraine. There is no need for new plants — cement factories can do the job.

“My motivation is the following – who if not us? No one. Either we submit to the situation and watch our country become clogged, or we become drivers of innovative change. I like this goal, this mission. It drives me, my team and we have really big ambitions to change the situation in Ukraine.”

This publication is part of the Ukraine Explained series, which is aimed at telling the truth about Ukraine’s successes to the world. It is produced with the support of the National Democratic Institute in cooperation with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, Internews, StopFake, and Content is produced independently of the NDI and may or may not reflect the position of the Institute. Learn more about the project here.

Read also:

Edited by: Michael Garrood
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