Yerevan’s authorities have taken over waste-collection from Lebanon-based contractor Sanitek after the summer’s ‘rubbish crisis’.
In mid-September, Yerevan residents found the ubiquitous black rubbish bins owned by the city’s waste removal contractor, Sanitek, tipped over. Standing next to them were new green containers owned by the city municipality.
The appearance of the new containers in mid-September was the latest manifestation of the ongoing row between Yerevan Municipality and Sanitek, triggered by the city’s rubbish crisis. A lack of waste collection resulted in ever-growing piles of rubbish left out in the summer heat.
As the summer heat hit the city in early July, the surfeit of rubbish became a common talking point on Armenian social media and even spawned songs, one of which bemoaned how instead of ‘beautiful places’ tourists could now only have the ‘sightseeing of rubbish’.
Later that month, complaints turned to protest as a group of demonstrators led by Sona Aghekyan, a former member of the Yerevan City Council, rallied in front of the municipality and threw waste at the building.
Meanwhile, other cities in the country were forced to send their own bin lorries to help the capital deal with the crisis.
A brief and smelly history
Lebanon based Sanitek International Group started to operate in the Armenian capital in 2014 and was responsible for waste removal in the west of the city. In 2015, Sanitek assumed responsibility for the whole city and become the sole waste removal operator in Yerevan.
The summer of 2019 was not the first time residents of Yerevan complained about Sanitek. In 2017, a lack of rubbish collection led to a deluge of angry social media posts complaining about foul smells suffusing the city. Then-mayor Daron Margaryan told journalists that while there were some issues with Sanitek, ‘the main reason for [the smell] are watermelons and melons’.
The My Step coalition of PM Nikol Pashinyan won an overwhelming victory in the 2018 city council elections. They promised to address complaints about rubbish removal in Yerevan and to consider involving a second operator.
Later that year, the municipality twice fined Sanitek for inadequate rubbish disposal, for a total of ֏38 million ($79,000). Sanitek fired back and filed two lawsuits against the municipality for a total of ֏65 million ($136,000) for failing to provide agreed-upon funds and services to the company.
Hayk Marutyan, the new mayor of Yerevan, publicly criticised Sanitek in March 2019, stating that the company was unresponsive to the Municipality’s complaints.
‘Our [municipality] utility department is sending [photos proving the inadequate services to Sanitek] so that they can fix their mistakes. Until now, they continue making promises that they will fix the problem’, Marutyan told journalists, adding that, at the time, it was not possible to secure the services of a second waste disposal operator.
‘We have to terminate the contract with this operator to involve a second one. If we terminate it, it will bring large fines’, said Marutyan.
On 29 July, a month into the crisis, Sanitek announced a press conference to tell their side of the story.
The press conference, scheduled for 31 July, was to be held not in Yerevan, but in Tbilisi, Georgia — with Sanitek representatives explaining that they did not have guarantees against ‘unlawful prosecution against shareholders and representatives of the company’.
Due to public pressure, the press conference was rescheduled for 2 August and moved to Yerevan.
Speaking via Skype during the press conference, Nikolas Tawil, Sanitek’s CEO, accused the municipality of political pressure ‘to exhaust Sanitek by all means’. He said that criminal cases were being opened against the company for tax evasion, claiming that the cases were illegal and groundless.
Two days prior, RFE/RL’s Armenian service reported that criminal cases against Sanitek for tax-evasion had been opened by the State Revenue Committee in February 2019.
On 13 August, Mayor Marutyan and PM Nikol Pashinyan participated in a live video discussion in which the former explained his view of Sanitek’s shortcomings.
‘The contract states that they must provide 16,000 metal rubbish containers each year. Now there are only 5,000 containers — both metal and plastic’, Marutyan said.
He added that the company had also not supplied enough bin lorries.
In a statement on 14 August, Sanitek called the discussion between Marutyan and Pashinyan ‘slander’ and complained of not being invited.
‘The company […] was ready to participate in yesterday’s working discussion to allow the Prime Minister and the public to hear both sides of the situation’, the statement read.
On 28 August, Sanitek announced that there would be a further deterioration in waste management services in the capital as more than ֏300 million ($63,000) in funding had been withheld from the company by the municipality.
On 23 April 2019, the Yerevan City Council legislated the creation of the Yerevan Trash Disposal and Sanitation Facility — a city-run waste disposal operator.
In the run to initial deployment in September, the city bought new rubbish containers, bin lorries, and hired new workers.
On 10 September, over a dozen Sanitek workers organised a demonstration in front of the Yerevan municipality building claiming that the company did not pay their August salaries.
‘We have been working for months and demand that the municipality pay Sanitek so that Sanitek will pay us’, one of the protestors told reporters.
Marutyan said that the protesters were organised and directed by Sanitek, but nevertheless promised to provide legal assistance․
Despite the fact that its bins have been overturned and its lorries have vanished from the streets of Yerevan, the city’s contract with Sanitek is technically still in force, but likely not for long.
‘The municipality’s lawyers are dealing with the latest developments in legal relations with Sanitek’, the municipality’s press secretary, Hakob Karapetyan told OC Media. ‘The reasons for terminating [the contract] existed long ago, because Sanitek was clearly failing at its job.’
He added that the company had refused to perform its duties since 28 August.
Sanitek was not reachable for comment and the company’s website and phone line were offline.