Don’t Waste the Future – Recyling in St Petersburg

Russia’s big cities consider themselves confronted with two major environmental challenges – air pollution and dealing with ever-accumulating waste. Saint Petersburg’s ecological footprint may not be as troublesome as the capital’s, but more could be done. This is why a small group of activists are trying to make a little bit of a difference with “RazDelniy Sbor” (“separate collection” in English), their waste recycling scheme.  So far, the project is an impressive success.

(No) waste separation in Saint Petersburg

A central Saint Petersburg rubbish collection place. Five big bins stand in an awkward, empty space between two houses on Dostoyevsky Street, all of them overflowing with neatly tied individual plastic bags, each packed with different kinds of waste. Several tourists passing by on their stroll around the great writer’s former quarter pause for a moment to take in what they are seeing. One brave one dares to take a picture of the ugly scene. This kind of scene, in what is considered Russia’s more beautiful Northern capital, is exactly what motivated a small group of like-minded young people to do more about the local waste management situation. The mega-dumps in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg are not only a thorn in the side of the daily commuter that has to look at them, they are also a serious environmental problem.

Household waste is generally not separated in Saint Petersburg, let alone anywhere else in Russia. There are also few regulations for industrial waste. As early as the 1970s paper collection and recycling was encouraged in the big cities of the Soviet Union, including Leningrad, but it only took off to a limited extent and encompassed a small amount of materials, such as paper. More recent attempts to organise waste separation for a variety of materials on a voluntary basis have also been made in Saint Petersburg, mostly encouraged by local and international NGOs. This is not good enough, according to the initiators of the “RazDelniy Sbor” movement.

Sofia Klimova is one of the organisers of "RazDelniy Sbor"
Sofia Klimova is one of the organisers of “RazDelniy Sbor” (Photo: Maria Stekheeva)

I meet Sofia Klimova at a Pizza Hut in the city centre of Saint Petersburg. If I didn’t know better I wouldn’t have guessed guess she is an environmental activist. She’s not even a vegetarian. But the passion with which this woman talks about her environmental activism tells me she is dedicated to the cause.


RazDeslniy Sbor” – changing the game

What started with one “collection point” where people could bring their paper and cartons turned into an organisation run by 20 main members and another 100 volunteers organising 23 recycling points all over the city on the first Saturday of each month. In November 2014, almost 3000 people showed up for the one-day action, leaving their four different types of plastic, paper, metal and glass waste, carefully separated and cleaned. The year before, the organisation had counted only 800 participants. The movement’s VKontakte community now consists of almost 18,000 members and is bursting with content to mobilise people in their recycling habits. After the one-day actions, the collected materials are handed over to firms who specialise in recycling the respective materials and re-introducing them into the economic cycle.

Recycling as a way of life

Recycling is for committed people, Sofia explains. She bases that observation on a survey “RazDelniy Sbor” conducted among the participants. “Now we know almost everything about them,” she says with a little pride. The average age of the Saint Petersburg “recyclist” is 31 and their oldest participant is 78. The habit of separating waste takes a lot of effort and entails a full change in consumer behaviour and awareness of what one throws away. “It’s not something you just do once a month.”


Recycling is for the whole family. (Photo: Irina Kovalchuk)
Recycling is for the whole family. (Photo: Irina Kovalchuk)

That is also a reason why “RazDelniy Sbor” has a happy-family-fun-approach. “Rubbish shouldn’t be the centre of attention at our actions. We organise activities for children and people get a voucher for lunch at the “Ukrop” café on Ulitsa Marata, for example.”

Pushing for Recycling

Why did it take so long for recycling to climb on the agenda? To some extent, Sofia explains, it’s a matter of attitudes. In Russia, it wasn’t until after the harsh 1990s that broad awareness for the need to recycle was raised. “Before that, people had different stuff to deal with.” And, of course, many company bosses are still from the old school of thought, prioritising profit over environmental impact.

Nor did people realise there were firms that accept household waste materials for recycling. Firms, in turn, didn’t expect people to separate correctly and clean the materials. Now the tide has turned. A little amused, Sofia tells the anecdote of how she recently ran into a manager of such a firm, who quite sincerely asked her: “Why don’t you work with us?”

Saint Petersburg – capital of environmental action?

In 2004 the organisation “Musora.Bolshe.Net” (no more waste) – was founded in Saint Petersburg in order to bring attention to the waste problem and possible solutions. Unlike “RazDelniy Sbor”, this organisation focuses on educational schemes and awareness raising rather than recycling actions.

Projects like “Musora.Bolshe.Net” and Sofia’s “RazDelniy Sbor” are all Saint Petersburg-based, despite the fact that the problems are equally pressing in both cities. Moscow doesn’t fare well in Sofia’s assessment. “There, I feel like I’m at a railway station. People are only there for the money, with no intention to stay.”

Saint Petersburg is different in every way, the native of Lipetsk explains. Even people who come from elsewhere – like her – come to stay. Therefore, there’s a bigger chance for social and environmental activism to succeed here. She was also part of the local election observer movement that has been pushing for fairer elections ever since the claims of gross falsification in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Beyond idealism

Sofia has no illusions: “What we collect and recycle in comparison to what actually accumulates every day – we are far from making a huge impact with that.” But commitment helps her stay focused. The small improvements they have made stand for themselves, but there’s more to take care of.

Currently “RazDelniy Sbor” is also trying to stop a major piece of legislation regarding waste combustion – incinerating waste. While this form of resource-based energy production isn’t necessarily a bad idea if done well,ecologically speaking, the organisation has little faith that the legislation will provide for the separation of materials before they get burned. “Without separation, this is impossible,” Sofia says.

The danger of burning toxic materials is high and the ecological impact of that is worth worrying about. The open letter they wrote to the Governor of Saint Petersburg was signed by almost 5000 people  – but so far, no reaction. An earlier petition to stop the building of combustion stations received no fewer than 100,000 signatures.

When we finally finish the interview, Sofia still hasn’t finished her lunch. I ask her: what motivates her to do all of this? The issue of waste combustion seems such a lost cause. “Just give us time,” she says.

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