Sorting bins in a Mykolayiv school

A Ukrainian school project launches a local environmental awareness movement. From Rubryka, a Ukrainian solutions-oriented news site.

A pioneering project spearheaded by schoolchildren in Mykolayiv, a southern Ukrainian city of about 480,000 near the Black Sea, is changing local mindsets and waste management practices.

In 2019, Ukraine ranked ninth on the list of countries with the highest amount of trash per capita. The average Ukrainian produces about 1 kilogram of trash per day, and per capita industrial waste in the country is about 30 kg. Most goes to landfills or dumps. Only about 3 percent of waste in Ukraine is recycled.

Only 575 settlements of more than 30,000 in Ukraine had waste separation systems – and Mykolayiv was not one of them – when the city launched its first-in-Ukraine project in 2016. The city development agency and education department, in partnership with the nonprofit environmental organization “Let’s do it Ukraine,” began separating trash in Mikolayiv’s public schools.

A workbook for young “eco-patrol” volunteers.

“The idea came after we held several subbotniks [voluntary clean-up events],” says Anna Ganzhul, the development agency’s acting director. “The main problem with the subbotnik is that you pick up garbage from one place and transport it to a landfill. So the solution can only be separate collection, so the waste has a chance to be recycled.”

Low levels of waste recycling are a common problem in post-Soviet countries. Used-paper collection was almost a national obligation in the USSR. Schools held competitions, and workplaces organized paper drives. But the limited amount of consumer goods and the meager amount of plastic in everyday products didn’t require a wide network of recycling plants. Even today, not all countries of the former USSR have available statistics on waste collection, processing, and disposal.

Ukraine has enough existing enterprises and facilities to recycle more waste. For example, the paper factory in Zmiiv, in the Kharkiv region, doesn’t collect enough recyclables from the domestic market and buys from Poland and Slovakia. The reason is the lack of a separate-waste collection system in most Ukrainian cities. Regional centers often lack the appropriate containers. And even when containers are available, waste sorting and recycling remain unfamiliar to most Ukrainians.

Mykolayiv’s project began with a series of informational sessions on waste separating for teachers and students from each of the city’s 69 schools. It focused on the types of waste that schools typically produce: PET bottles and plastics, paper, and Tetra Paks. If the school collects enough of other types of waste, it is also accepted and sent for recycling. The collected and separated waste is picked up by private companies that contract with the schools to buy waste from them and then sell the sorted waste to recyclers. Schools’ profits go to a special account, from which they can buy supplies. “A school could earn even 25,000 or 28,000 hryvnias [up to $1,000] from recyclables [per year],” Ganzhul says. “It didn’t work out that way everywhere, but it’s achievable.”

Big Win for a Small School

To encourage students and support the initiative, a competition is held each year among all of Mykolayiv’s schools. The school that collects the most waste per pupil receives a prize from the city. The first year it was separate waste containers; now it’s a monetary award. There are awards in categories such as promoting and disseminating information on proper waste separation. A total of 20,000 students took part last year, collecting, sorting, and recycling 119 tons of waste.

Serhiy Kryvonosov School, also known as Secondary School No. 32, won the citywide competition for the 2019-2020 school year. Teacher Tetyana Matusevych says pupils were amazed that their school of 450-some students was able to win at the city level: “When they called me and said, ‘We won, there’s a huge cake – come on!’ I didn’t believe it. But all this is superfluous. You know, when the kids did it, collected it, and won … and at a school meeting they were told, ‘Kids, thank you, this is your victory,’ they started to dream. They wanted to win something else.”

School No. 32

Inna Tertytsia, a senior specialist with the city education department, says the prize jury was impressed not only by the the quantity of waste per pupil at School No. 32 but also by its promotional campaign. The students boarded public minibuses, buses, and trolleybuses and explained to the riders what trash sorting is and why it’s important.

The project was conceived and is implemented by eco-patrols: student groups at each school that make sure sorting takes place properly, attend training on the city level, and share what they learn with other students. Participation is voluntary.

Eleventh-grader Mariia Ladeyshchikova organized the first eco-patrol at School No. 32 in 2016. When Mariia returned to school after a long illness, Matusevych suggested the waste separation project as a way help her rejoin school life. Today, others continue the work.

“I want to help the environment; I want to see my country and city clean,” says Anna Bronytska, a current 10th grader at the school. “So when the foreigners come to our city, they wouldn’t say ‘Why is it so dirty here?’ and ‘Our city is cleaner.’ ”

Children as Agents of Change

Training sessions on proper sorting are held every year in Mykolayiv. Students and teachers or parents from each school are invited to participate. Parent Olesya Teslenko says the training opened her eyes to a problem she hadn’t noticed before. She immediately started sorting trash at home. “At first, everyone laughed – ‘What is this, a garbage dump in your house?’ ” she recalls. But her children quickly caught the recycling bug. “When they wanted to throw away a plastic candy wrapper, they went to the green container for plastic.”

Children are “our agents of change,” Ganzhul says, “because they themselves re-educate their families, and we are very grateful to them for that. We work with housing cooperatives in the city, and they are very grateful to us, because the children motivate them when they say ‘Come on mom, what are you doing? The paper goes here, and this goes there!’ ”

When it became clear the sorting in Mykolayiv schools was working, the program expanded in 2018 to include 26 preschools. There, the training is done through games and stories. Recycling works a bit differently at preschools: The youngest children might not readily understand all the sorting categories, and preschools produce mostly paper waste.

Waste separation also has been introduced for staff and visitors at Mykolayiv’s 32 hospitals. The hospitals already had been sorting their medical waste, which requires special treatment and disposal.

Tips on proper disposal of leaves and organic waste.

Children have passed on the zeal for sorting to their parents, who continue to spread the idea. In the Teslenko family, Olesya’s husband was skeptical at first: “A week later, when my husband saw how many plastic bags an average family like ours uses, he started to think about it,” Olesya says. “He is military, and in his unit, because they always drink water from plastic bottles, he started saying ‘Guys, what are we doing?’ ”

Even city residents who don’t have children have learned about the sorting and started doing it at home. They pass on the sorted refuse to friends and acquaintances whose children go to school. This prompted School No. 32 to open its containers, which had been closed along with the school grounds during holidays, to the public this past summer. The response was so great that contractors had to empty the containers several times, even though the project was not even officially operating during the summer vacation, when schools are closed and thus produce no waste.

“Basically, our people are ready for ecological thinking,” Tertytsia, the education official, says. “Yes, there are people who are unaware and do many wrong and harmful things. But when it comes from children, it works.”

Prior to the launch of the recycling project, the city had neither the appropriate infrastructure for separate waste collection nor the demand for it. Now, several city districts are joining in. In the Ingul district, each new transport stop now has containers for separate waste. More and more specialized containers are being installed by public utilities and businesses. And the Mykolayiv development agency created an interactive map of the city with all separated waste bins, recycling points, and places for battery disposal, although the site is no longer active.

Ganzhul says the recycling project’s creators were counting on such a multiplier effect: “This was the initial goal,” she says. “We learned from the experience of other countries, and everywhere it started with children. Because the goal is to raise a generation that will be more conscientious and better than us.”

“No Way Back”

Advocates for the project had to overcome numerous challenges. “Children and adults alike didn’t always understand what separate waste collection means,” Tertytsia recalls. “Sometimes they thought this meant that trash was dumped from the containers and then sorted. And the hottest topic was why should children dig in the trash? In some schools, this is still not understood.”

School No. З2 faced those challenges too, but with the system firmly in place for more than four years, they have been resolved there. Even teachers are sorting and bringing waste from home to the school containers for paper, plastics, plastic bottles and Tetra Paks, and one for other kinds of waste. The school also collects glass bottles, tin cans, and batteries separately in smaller containers.

Another misconception was that sorting is meaningless, because sorted trash ends up in the same truck and in the same landfill as regular garbage. This has been addressed through painstaking explanations and demonstrations of how the whole process actually works.

Unlike many Western countries which lack the capacity to reprocess all plastic waste, in particular, Ukraine’s recyclers can easily accommodate the lower volume of sorted waste. The biggest challenge for sorting in schools today is the global drop in recycling prices. At the beginning of the project, schools sold 1 kg of waste paper for 2.5 hryvnias ($0.09); now, with a price of 1 hryvnia per kilo, it isn’t profitable for businesses to take it. The waste management company most of the city’s schools worked with from the beginning stopped doing business in Ukraine last year. While the city development agency looks for a way out of this situation, the municipal waste removal company has temporarily stepped in to help.

Despite these hitches, the school recycling program continues to grow, as does the city’s commitment to it. The development agency and education department want to make environmental education not just an extracurricular activity but a part of the regular educational process. Another area of focus is working with other institutions in Mykolayiv to create citywide conditions for sorting. Schools, after all, cannot and should not continue taking on that role, officials say.

The nearby communities of Oleksandrivska and Prybuzhanivska are also introducing sorting in their schools. The large cities of Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Kherson have expressed interest in the Mykolayiv project. But here too, everything depends on raising money. It is not easy to tease out the total public investment in the project from city budget figures, but the city contributed about 220,000 hryvnias ($8,000) for the initial launch in 2016. Businesses helped print posters and study books and have donated some containers throughout the project.

Support from the city and local businesses made the Mykolayiv project possible, Tertytsia says, but this is not always the case in other cities: “If this isn’t happening there, it’s not because schools don’t want it or the education department isn’t ready.”

Whatever challenges the school sorting project faces at the moment, everyone involved says there is no going back. “If the children get attracted … it’s impossible to stop it,” Olesya Teslenko says. “There’s a lot of work involved in this, but you can’t move backwards. This is a habit, the same as washing your hands or brushing your teeth.”

Ukrainian journalist Danylo Herasymov, based in Estonia, writes for Rubryka, the first Ukrainian solutions-oriented media outlet, where this article first appeared. He reports on politics, social issues, and environmental topics.

Photos courtesy of Rubryka.