Recycling in Russia

The garbage problem is huge in Russia – literally, as most of the waste in this country is piled up somewhere in the landfills. The waste which doesn’t go to landfills is most likely incinerated, the percentage of recycled waste in Russia is about 5-7. In most of the places there isn’t a proper system for collecting recyclables, if people throw out their garbage, it mostly goes all into the same container. To find any separate waste container demands usually thorough searching. While living in St. Petersburg for some time now, I have spotted exactly one.
When there’s no system, it needs to be created. This is what has happened in Russia. There are different organizations trying to develop the culture of recycling. One of these organizations is RazDelniy Sbor (Waste Separation in English).

Attention! New date for the World Cleanup Day 2018 is 15th of September (ed: 22.02.2017)!

I talked with Anna Garkusha from RazDelniy Sbor about the situation with recycling and the role of their organization. Garkusha’s task there is coordinating the communication and cooperation with the local authorities and that’s why we talk a lot about the role of the state and officials.

RazDelniy Sbor is an organisation whose purpose is, as Garkusha puts it, on one hand to show people that collecting waste separately is not difficult and, on the other hand, to show the officials that people are ready to do it. They want to create awareness among different actors of society: the people, the state (officials) and businesses.

Razdelniy Sbor action in St. Petersburg. Photo from

RazDelniy Sbor has created its own system for separate waste collection. Although Garkusha refuses to call it a system, it would be difficult to call it anything else than that – a grassroot system created not by the state but by the people. The system looks like this: every first Saturday of the month several collecting spots are opened where people can bring their recyclables. In every location there are volunteers who collect the recyclables and afterwards make sure that everything collected gets loaded in trucks and delivered to spots of recycling. In St. Petersburg there are 23 locations around the city – on the street corners, in parks – where the people can bring their recyclables during a few hours (depending on location, the collecting spot is opened 1-4 hours) This is how the system works in St. Petersburg where the movement started and where it is the biggest. In Moscow and some other cities RazDelniy Sbor is also active but the system for collecting varies.

While talking about separate waste collection, Garkusha says that compared to the other parts of Russia, the situation is better in St. Petersburg and its surroundings. She explains it by the fact that Finland is close by – people often travel there, see positive solutions in their recycling system, come back and try to introduce these solutions also back home.

Garkusha tells me the story of how she got involved with RazDelniy Sbor. This happened in 2013 when she started to think more about the importance of recycling. In the same time one garbage incineration factory was planned to be built in St. Petersburg. She started to fight against this factory. The factory was widely objected to and the officials asked the people that if they don’t want the factory then what kind of solution they would suggest instead of it. The people offered the system of RazDelniy Sbor, described above. In the end the factory wasn’t built. As Garkusha tells me, this was not only because of the widespread objection but largely because of the economic crisis. She says that the plans for the factory haven’t been officially cancelled, just ‘frozen’. People don’t know whether these plans are still to be completed or not and therefore they don’t know what to expect. The movement against building the factory is alert and active.

Everything collected during the actions is later loaded to trucks and sent to recycling. Photo from

Garkusha’s main task in RazDelniy Sbor is the communication and cooperation with officials. As she says, this is not a very easy work. The officials are not really interested in developing a separate waste collection system and don’t always understand why this would be necessary. They are only interested that the city would be clean, not in how this cleanness is reached. Besides, the officials often don’t know much about separate waste collection as such. Garkusha compares them with first-graders who go to the zoo and need to have explained which animal is which. Her words are confirmed also by inquiry, made by Greenpeace in last summer. The local authorities all over Russia were asked about the situation with recycling in their region. It was found that a lot of them don’t even know how their own system works.


Unsuccessful experiment

By now disappeared yellow and blue containers. Photo from

In 2002 the city of St. Petersburg started a so-called “recycling experiment”. They placed containers for different type of waste on the streets. There were two different type of containers: one for paper and the other for metal, glass and plastic. The idea itself was noble but the city inhabitants were very poorly informed about this new system. These containers just appeared and the people didn’t know if the garbage from these containers would really go to recycling. They were sceptical about the usefulness of such a system and their scepticism wasn’t silenced by the way the waste was collected from the containers. The company who managed the collection of waste, decided that they were not going to have different trucks for these different containers as the recyclables would later be sorted anyway. The people saw how the waste from different containers was poured together into the same truck. Due to this they didn’t start to trust the new system and continued to use the old containers for the non-separated garbage. In the end people also started to use the new containers for all the garbage. After some years the city authorities decided that the experiment was unsuccessful and the containers disappeared altogether. The experiment lasted from 2002–2009.

This experiment is something which has also negatively affected people’s attitudes towards the actions of RazDelniy Sbor. They have bad memories and it makes them sceptical towards separate waste collection. Due to this experiment they don’t know if they can trust that the waste they bring would really go to recycling. As Garkusha says, by now the trust is more or less recovered, but this kind of garbage experiment didn’t make things easier.

After this unsuccessful project the city authorities claimed that the people were not yet ready for the recycling and that this is the cause of failure. In reality, Garkusha believes, people are ready; their experience shows that people want to recycle. There are about 4500 people who come to the actions in St. Petersburg every month. They find these actions necessary. 4500 is not a very big number, compared with the whole population of St. Petersburg which is more than five million. But, believing the results of the poll made by Levada Centre last year, the will to recycle is there. 57% percent of respondents said that they would be ready to recycle if it would be possible to dispose the garbage separately. In addition to this 57 is the 6% who already recycle. So there seems to be a general will but the lack of possibilities to act accordingly to it. It’s up to local authorities to create these possibilities – or to continue with the zoo metaphor – to get to know all the species in the zoo and take care of them accordingly.




By Kaia Beilmann