A Moldovan journalist visits Georgia for a look at modern waste management methods in this famously hospitable country. From Moldova’s Diez news site.

Civic initiatives, ecology exhibitions, landfills built to European standards, organic restaurants, the private sector, and a little of the famous Georgian spirit: Diez’s investigation into waste management in Georgia starts with data and statistics and ends with personal experience, expectations, and hopes in a country where plastic bags are due to be phased out and where the many parks welcome visitors … because in Georgia, hospitality is everywhere.

On the night of 20 June 2019, a massive protest took place in Tbilisi, later called “Gavrilov night.” For two weeks, as I went to the demonstrations every day, I experienced different emotions: from fear and anger to bliss, joy, and regret. All that time I was observing those around me, the way people dressed, the way they behaved. I witnessed what might be called Georgian protest culture.

One sight that impressed and also amused me was the behavior of a young man, one of the 20,000 protesting in front of the parliament, who as he smoked, slipped his cigarette ashes into a small portable ashtray. I was already used to seeing how at the end of each protest a few young people collected all the garbage and disposed of it in the recycling bins lining a portion of Rustaveli Boulevard. But to collect cigarette ashes in a box, indeed, looked out of the ordinary.

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Waste sorting containers have a special history and are, in fact, a kind of experiment in Georgia.

Recycling bins are spaced close together along Rustaveli Boulevard. When I first saw them, I asked local people if there were as many in other parts of the city. I was told that, in fact, there were hardly any elsewhere, only a few near some schools.

Rustaveli is the street in Tbilisi with the highest flow of tourists, and the mayor’s office has decided to install 80 recycling bins there. The plan was to nudge Georgians into picking up the habits of tourists from countries where waste sorting is already routine and who sort out plastic, paper, glass, and other waste without thinking twice about it. And I was proud, as a tourist, to deposit my trash in the appropriate container, even though I come from a country where awareness of waste sorting is only in its infancy.

Georgia started its waste management journey about 15 years earlier than Moldova. Let’s take a closer look at its progress, with all its road markings, intersections, stops, and speed limits.

EU Standards and the “Parki ar Minda” Initiative

When Georgia signed a so-called Association Agreement on closer cooperation with the European Union in 2014, it took on commitments to adopt a range of EU rules and standards, including in the area of waste management. The country soon launched a waste recycling and management program implemented by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in cooperation with local organizations, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Workers sort waste at the Rustavi landfill. Image via Diez / YouTube.

The EU waste management targets to which Georgia has committed include processing 30 percent of plastic waste by 2020, 50 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2030. But let us take things one at a time. We decided to start our journey with small steps and, respectively, with small initiatives; so I met two young women, the founders of the Parki ar minda campaign, Tatiana Remneva and Mari Mikadze. Somewhat ironically, the Georgian word “parki” means both a plastic bag and a park, and this inspired the campaign’s slogan, “I don’t need a bag, I need parks” (Parki ar minda, parki minda).

The initiative aims to raise awareness of the importance of reducing the use of plastic through seminars, events in schools, meetings of like-minded people, swap parties, and other creative tools like cleanup games, where teams can win prizes for collecting the most waste from natural areas.

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Most consumer plastic bags are banned in Georgia, so I decided to go shopping with Tatiana and Mari at a nearby store to see to what extent the law is observed.

In a single year, each resident of Georgia uses about 525 plastic bags, well in excess of the EU target, according to the Center for Environmental Education and Protection, a body within the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture. Most plastic bags used in Georgia are imported, and 40 percent of them are disposable. Much of this plastic waste ends up in landfills, almost all managed by a single company.

The fight against plastic bags started in November 2018, when bags with a thickness of less than 15 microns were banned. As of April 2019, production, import, and sale of disposable plastic bags of any thickness is officially banned.

The only bags still allowed in Georgia are biodegradable ones made from corn and wheat fiber. Biodegradable paper bags are also allowed.

Regretfully, the law is poorly observed, with the authorities’ lack of close control as the main reason.

Much waste, of course, cannot currently be recycled. In Georgia, about 900,000 tons of municipal waste are produced annually, of which about 700,000 tons end up in landfills.

Currently, there are 56 municipal solid waste landfills. Some were built in the 1980s or earlier without any protection measures. Such uncontrolled landfills pose a serious threat to both the environment and the population.

According to a 2018 survey by the National Democratic Institute and the Caucasus Resource and Research Center, 66 percent of the population agreed that unauthorized landfills and poor waste management are a severe problem.

Solid Waste Management, a state-funded enterprise, has operated 54 landfills in Georgia since 2012.  It has already managed to close 23 of them; none of the remaining sites operate according to European standards, experts say. The remaining landfills are expected to be closed by 2023 and replaced by modern, new ones.

Solid Waste Management – It’s the Law

A legislative package soon to be submitted to the government, and already included in Georgia’s waste management code, enshrines the principle of “extended producer responsibility” – making individual companies that produce and import products responsible for monitoring their products throughout the cycle of use, reuse, and recycling.

According to the principle, packaging materials such as paper, plastic, glass, cardboard, metal, and wood; batteries and accumulators; electronic devices; bags; oils; tires; and old cars are all subject to recycling. This waste must be separated and subsequently used as a resource.

“The negotiation process is over,” Environment Minister Levan Davitashvili stated in May. The legislative package was postponed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic but not halted, he said.

“Moreover, prior to adoption of the legal initiatives, we had extensive negotiations with  representatives from the business sphere. Their views and attitudes are taken into account. This is a difficult reform, which is to gain historical significance along the way,” Davitashvili said, adding that agreement had also been reached with other government agencies.

Although part of the waste package has already been adopted, some issues remain to be addressed. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of extended producer responsibility, Solid Waste Management deputy director Vakhtang Baramia says. Its implementation is still at an early stage, and success depends heavily on the observance of the new laws by producers and on enforcement of penalties in case of violations.

The same can be said of the plastic bag ban. Although the legislation was well-drafted and clear, regretfully, the authorities do not carefully monitor the situation, and one can still find plastic bags in the markets.

Currently, only one landfill in Georgia meets European standards. We drove the 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Tbilisi to Rustavi to visit it.

Every day, 120 to 130 trucks deliver solid waste to the site. The waste is covered with a layer of geomembrane to control movement of fluids, then with a layer of permeable geotextile, and finally with a 50-centimeter (20-inch) thick drainage layer. Once this geo-sandwich gets to three meters in thickness, it’s covered with an additional layer of ballast. In this way, liquid that accumulates in the solid waste mass during rain does not seep into the ground, but flows into special pipes and is pumped into a pond.

Organic matter in the landfill emits methane, a greenhouse gas, but the multiple protective layers prevent it from entering the atmosphere, the company states. Pipes have recently been installed to collect the methane and use it for industrial purposes.

On the last day of our stay in Tbilisi, we had a lucky break, as we were able to visit Waste Expo 2020 and learn more about the development of waste management in Georgia. The first company I approached for a short interview, Clean World, offers waste collection, sorting, and pressing services. Waste is collected from 25 sorting points in Tbilisi as well as factories, hypermarkets, and individuals. Currently, the company operates in Tbilisi and Batumi, but there are plans to extend its services to the Kutaisi and Imereti regions.

Youthful Optimism

We reunited with the women behind Parki ar minda for a final dinner in an organic restaurant at the close of our eco-research trip to Georgia.

Tatiana and Mari were quite optimistic, both about the progress of their campaign and the improving ecological situation in Georgia, thanks largely to changing attitudes among young people. The lifestyle of young Georgians is going through a transformation. Many are passionate about travel; they want to visit European countries and to be part of the EU and adopt some of the practices they see there.

Let us hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will not leave them emptied of enthusiasm, dedication, and, above all, motivation.

The people of this country really want to be part of the EU, and they take EU requirements seriously. On the other hand, the country is managed by a party with a controversial reputation, suspected of being rather partial to the interests of the Russian Federation.

Parliamentary elections in Georgia are scheduled to be held this October, and their outcome will deeply affect the future of the country’s citizens, their European aspirations, the fate of the occupied territories, and, of course, the relationship with Russia. But the protests and the pandemic taught me two things about the citizens of Georgia.

  • They know how to defend their interests and their values; they are ready to take to the streets at any time if they feel they are being lied to, humiliated, or betrayed. They did so when they held raves in front of parliament in 2018, and then again during the visit of the Russian parliamentarian Sergey Gavrilov in June 2019.
  • The pandemic showed that, despite being so hospitable; despite loving to have fun and to meet with relatives, neighbors, friends; despite the custom to embrace, and to kiss each other when meeting or parting; in extreme conditions, Georgians know how to follow the rules, to be disciplined, and in control of the situation.

These two observations have led me to believe that Georgia is a country that will successfully manage its environmental issues, if environmental protection becomes a common interest of the entire population, and the government will take care to implement all laws and policies related to the environment.

Djein Vacari is a journalist with Diez, a bilingual Romanian-Russian news site in Moldova aimed at young people, where this article originally appeared in longer form.

Translated by Elena Bivol.