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Is this the beginning of a recycling revolution in Azerbaijan?

22 April 2019
(Vafa Zeynalova/OC Media)

The fight against plastic waste in Azerbaijan entered a new stage late last year after the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources announced the possible adoption of a law against plastic bags use. But while the Ministry of Environment sees the solution as being through private and public initiatives, the general public expects regulatory actions from the authorities.

Originally from India, Sarita Vaid has lived in Azerbaijan since 1998. In the early 2000s, she developed a passion for recycling and began to devote herself towards fighting plastic use through education and promoting recycled products.

Vaid realised her passion for recycling while discussing the number of plastic bags flying through Baku. To help combat the problem, she started designing shopping bags from the Whiskas packaging leftover from feeding her cats. They were ‘too bright and attractive to just throw away’, she tells OC Media.

In 2006, Vaid created Sarita’s Eco Creations, a company that sells bags and other articles made from recycled materials.

‘I collected fabrics from my own supplies and gave them to a group of refugee women from Afghanistan, whom I then worked on a humanitarian project with. They sewed shopping bags from fabric to use instead of plastic bags’, says Vaid.

In 2017, she, along with five other women, founded Eco Baku, an environmental rights organisation, and launched their first pilot programme — the Eco Baku Bag for Life project. Since then, they have coordinated educational workshops with local schools, created various recycling initiatives with the British and US embassies in Baku, and produced advertisements with the Baku Metro.

Looking for an alternative

In November 2018, Umayra Tagiyeva, then–head of the environmental education and public relations department of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan, told Report that the ministry plans to introduce mandatory fees for plastic bags starting in 2019. Later on, she added that they plan to completely ban any plastic packaging with a thickness of less than 20 microns.

Her statement followed a decision by the European Parliament in October 2018 to completely ban disposable plastic in the EU by 2021. On 28 March, the European Parliament followed-up by banning plastic food containers.

These planned regulations are a part of the Action Plan for 2019–2020 ‘On reducing the negative impact of plastic waste on the environment’ which was approved by Azerbaijani President  Ilham Aliyev in February.

The plan was developed with both short-term, one-year goals and separate long-term goals to reach by 2025.

The short-term goals include strengthening the plastic waste management ecosystem, encouraging the reduction of plastic waste and its recycling, and improving the legal framework and monitoring systems.

In addition, the Law on Industrial and Municipal Waste, which was adopted in 1998, is set to be modified; no concrete changes have been announced, however.

But the ministry insists that the fight against plastic use should come primarily from the people themselves. Irada Ibrahimova, the ministry’s spokesperson, says that the ministry is currently campaigning to encourage people to use alternatives to plastic bags, such as cloth bags and woven baskets.

In addition, the government is focused on organising several events to raise awareness about plastic waste and recycling, such as launching new projects like Tamiz olkam (‘My clean country’), a collaboration between the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy and Coca-Cola organising clean-ups around the city, and holding forums to bring local and foreign ecologists together to discuss better solutions for environmental waste.

However, though an action plan has been formed, Ibrahimova told OC Media that it was still too early to talk about legal changes.

‘Whether a bill will be adopted or not, it’s not we who decide. I can only say that we support the decision to charge for plastic bags’, she says.

Sceptics of the plan, such as economist Togrul Mashalli, believe that there are no practical alternatives and that this lack of options will cause any proposed bill to fail.  

‘There is no affordable and cheap alternative to plastic and plastic packaging. There is no raw material for paper packaging in the country, it will have to be imported. Plastic still has its own resources, side branches of oil production, as well as cheap imports, for example, from Iran’, says Mashalli.

He adds that viable alternatives have not even been proposed yet in the European Parliament itself.

‘Paper is not an alternative to plastic, neither in price nor in terms of ecology’, he says.

Educating the public

Plastic bags are currently distributed free of charge in Baku. In addition, each product in a shop is often packaged separately, creating more waste. Some people, however, are trying to reuse the plastic materials they are given.

‘I try to take less plastic bags and I use them multiple times until they tear’, Ahmed Rakhmanov, a 40-year-old resident of Baku, says.

Similarly, whenever Vaid goes shopping, whether it be in the small stores near her home or in large supermarkets, she refuses plastic bags. She says the cashiers are happy to put her purchases into her own reusable bags.

Vaid promotes reuse in the greater community by handing out booklets, making announcements in the subway about the dangers of plastic, and organising meetings, all with the assistance of her colleagues at Eco Baku. Vaid also distributes her own bags in nearby stores and asks if she can put posters up about the dangers of plastic.

Depending on the product, it can take over 400 years for plastic to degrade. Plastic bags can also cause pollution when they are burned due to the toxic substances that are released. Finally, many plastic products end up in the ocean, where they are eaten by unsuspecting animals.

In Vaid’s opinion, if people are aware of the dangers of not recycling, they will change their lifestyle and start making a difference.

‘Education is very important. The support of large companies, stores, and the government will be of great importance for solving this problem’.

Like Vaid, Islam Mustafayev, a representative of the Public Environmental Association Ruzgar, believes that the process of recycling begins with the public. He says the educational activities currently enacted by the state lack the consistency needed to influence people.

‘In order to make progress in this area, society needs good PR from opinion-makers’, he tells OC Media.

Divide, collect, recycle

Mehman Nabiyev, a senior advisor at the Ministry of Ecology, tells OC Media that while in 1960, the share of plastics in household waste in Azerbaijan was just 1%, today it is 12%.

To help support recycling, he says that the Ministry of Ecology installed 70 containers for the collection and sorting of plastic in 31 localities of Azerbaijan. According to Nabiyev, it was a voluntary initiative by the ministry.

‘Separate funds were not allocated for this, this is a pilot, educational project’.

Nabiyev says the ministry hopes that local authorities and private entrepreneurs will pick up the initiative, as a variety of packaging could be produced from recycled plastic. He also underlines the importance of education, pointing to the flash mobs organised by Eco Baku.

In contrast, Anar Mansurov, a Global Projects Environmental and Social Team Leader at British Petroleum, says there is no official data on the use of plastic in Azerbaijan and that there are no official government programmes to minimise its production or use. According to him, some projects launched by foreign companies exist, but there is nothing to monitor their effectiveness.

One such enterprise is the Temiz Shahar company, which installed containers for the separate collection of rubbish (food and non-food waste) in the suburbs and in the centre of Baku as a pilot project, with two types of containers.

According to the press service of Temiz Shahar, this is the primary stage of sorting; the rubbish from these containers is later sent to a waste sorting plant in Balakhani.

However, this separation of waste is only occurring in Baku. According to Mustafayev, there is no management of household waste in Azerbaijan’s outlying regions and that it is pointless to talk about sorting when even hazardous materials, such as batteries and medical waste, are not being separated.

Another private company, Ecobox Collection and Recycling, installed ‘fundomats’ — devices for collecting plastic and aluminium bottles in exchange for a small cash reward — in 20 supermarkets in Baku in the summer of 2018. A representative of the company told OC Media that they had built a plant for processing plastic and aluminium packaging and plan to import more than 1,000 more fundomats.

According to Mansurov, social initiatives created to minimise plastic use will not be successful without financial motivations. However, the amount of money provided for recycling may not be enough for the citizens of Baku.

‘It turns out that I will collect hundreds of bottles, I will hand them over to the apparatus in the Port of Baku Mall, and I will only receive ₼3 [$1.75] which is loaded onto my phone. It turns out that even the bottle collector must have a smartphone’, local resident Rafet Ibrahimov tells OC Media.

But Mansurov believes that having a fee for bags will provide this motivation.

‘If even a small amount is charged for plastic bags, while it may not be noticeable per day, a substantial amount would be collected per year. This will encourage people to use less plastic’.

The surrounding region

In neighboring Georgia, it has been prohibited to manufacture, import, and sell plastic bags less than 15 microns thick since October 2018. In addition, the country began a switch to biodegradable bags in April. Some cities are already taking further steps; in Batumi, separate waste collection is already taking place.

In Armenia, some supermarkets have charged a fee for plastic bags since 2016, but supermarket employees see this as a way to make additional income rather than reduce plastic waste. In August 2018, Minister of Ecology Erik Grigoryan said that the use of disposable plastic would soon be banned in Armenia, and that they will distribute reusable bags instead.

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