Europe, you can say, is very “green”-minded. Sure, this attitude does vary slightly as you travel from one part of the European Union to another (at least as it’s constituted in its present form, slated to last not too much longer until next May 1). But what can stand as a symbol of this attitude is the multiple trash-separation bins (plastic; glass; the rest – or however it works in your neighborhood) to be found in most countries of the Union, together with local residents standing in front of them, meticulously sorting their trash into the separate bins in which it belongs (or so at least in theory).
Russia, on the other hand, is one country destined never to make it into the EU, for geopolitical reasons or what have you. (Who knows, though, some commentators say differently.) Nonetheless, trash separation has now found its way as far east as Moscow, as reported in a highly-amusing article in the French Libération by Lorraine Millot (Eco-Trash Gets All Moscow Enthused). When it comes to trash-separation, we know that Germans will do it, at least; but will Slavs do it? Mme. Millot explores this fascinating sociological question.
Indeed, on her visit out to the anonymous Socialist-style high-rise apartments in the Moscow suburbs, Millot hears nothing but praise for the new trash containers, from both young (22-year-old Olga: “They’re super!”) and old (two grandmothers named Anna, one 74 and the other 79 years old: “We’re very happy with them. It’s really neat and tidy,” although then one adds “But we really don’t have much to throw away. Maybe one milk carton per week, that’s it.”). Enthusiasm similarly pours from the lips of Mikhail Tsyganov, the city manager responsible for the new project. “In one courtyard where we placed the new containers a woman told me ‘It’s culture that you are bringing to us! Finally we’re doing things like they do in the West!’”
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems. A big one is that there are far too few such containers available at this stage. Says Alexander Mayakine, head of the recycling service at the Moscow mayor’s office, “We only have about a thousand containers installed, while we would need 100,000 to cover all of Moscow.” Maybe a bigger problem is that, even if those 100,000 containers were in place, Muscovites would not use them because that is not how they get rid of their trash! Ninety percent of city residents in fact live in high-rise apartment towers such as those visited by Mme. Millot, and what they actually use for their trash are the trash-chutes placed on the landing of every floor. But project-manager Tsyganov thinks he has a solution for that: Perhaps the trash-chutes could be reserved for paper on Monday, for plastic on Tuesday, and so on. Or they could be reserved for different categories of trash every day by the hour: 9:00 to 10:00 for paper, 10:00 to 11:00 for plastic, etc. (Calling designated slappers and cold-water-from-bucket pourers: Emergency! This man has seriously taken leave of reality!)
Maybe the biggest problem of all is that, even if that were the way that Muscovites got rid of their trash, they would not bother to sort it anyway. Millot uncovers hints that this may be the case as she rummages a bit deeper through the trash bins of the Alexeyevskaya apartments she visits. Sure enough, paper and plastic seem mixed together indiscriminately. What’s more, one of the old Marias finally turns to her with a confession: “I find this system to be very good, but I don’t use it. It’s too cold to stay in the courtyard and sort trash.” Not that she feels very good about her attitude: “I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed,” she affirms, and goes on to solemnly promise, her hand on her heart, that she will indeed start sorting her trash, starting next summer.
DISPOSAL METHODS FROM THE PAST
Ultimately, maybe it won’t turn out to be such a big problem if Moscow takes slowly to this EU-style of trash separation, if indeed the city takes to it at all. Moscow has long wielded its own techniques to make sure trash is disposed of economically, techniques that even the Germans could not hope to match. The first technique was called “Soviet communism”: “nothing was lost” in the trash back in the days prior to 1991, many Russians will tell you with pride, since the authorities made sure of that, dispatching the Pioneers (the Communist version of the Boy and Girl Scouts) to collect and sort old paper, glass, and metal. For 20kg of old paper, Millot reports, you could even get a coupon entitling you to a new book. Then, after 1991, a new technique took over, similarly unknown west of the Oder: “poverty.” Yes, the old state-run gathering of trash had fallen into chaos, but you could still get money at collection centers for the material you collected – one rouble for a kilo of paper, 30 kopeks for an aluminum can, etc. So those who needed money, any money, took to the trash-gathering business with relish, and since this societal stratum happened to comprise about 20% of the population, there were really few grounds to worry during this period that anything was truly going to waste.
But maybe these times are themselves passing into history – thankfully – despite that shortage, mentioned above, of around 99,000 sortable-trash containers. In the New Russia of Vladimir Putin that 20% of the population in poverty is probably shrinking, but at least one thing’s for sure: the amount of trash is growing by leaps and bounds, by some 5% to 7% a year. Perhaps, then, trash-sorting à la Western Europe is coming to Russia – or at least to Moscow – at more-or-less the right time. Only that pesky problem of human nature, of human laziness making one disinclined to do much more than go out to the landing and throw the bags down the chute, remains.