Last month, Bishkek city hall finally buried a garbage landfill that had been burning continuously for a decade.
The news was met with jubilation by eco-activists, who had been pleading for years with the municipal authorities.
The landfill was built in 1978 and was designed for a population of around 400,000 people. Kyrgyzstan’s capital is home to more than 1 million and is growing fast.
Now, a new pit has been built. City hall wants that one to work in a whole different way. Achieving that will require a dramatic transformation in how the public deals with its trash.
In the meantime, city hall is effecting major changes to how it handles garbage.
The city collects around one-and-a-half tons of waste in Bishkek and the surrounding areas every day. The trash is all gathered in one undifferentiated mass: plastic, glass, discarded foodstuffs and clothing are all piled into the same trucks.
Before that happens, an early stage of sorting is done directly at dumpsters by homeless and poor people looking for items to collect and redeem at recycling companies. Another layer of sorting has traditionally been done directly at the landfill, where many dozens of people trawl the shifting, burning mountain in search of recyclable things to salvage.
“During the winter, up to 500 people work collecting … plastic, glass, cardboard and metal,” Aimeerim Tursaliyeva, co-founder of Tazar, an environmental group, told Eurasianet.
The landfill in Bishkek is owned by the municipality, but the territory was until March leased out to a private company called Beken Dos. The lease granted the company the exclusive right to sort the waste, which it bought directly from people sifting through the landfill and then sold on to recycling companies. Those gatherers typically lived in neighborhoods that sprung up illegally near the trash mountain.
“Plastic can be sold from 25 to 50 soms ($0.30-0.60) [per kilo], depending on the season. Household plastic, that is shampoo bottles and soap dispensers, is 35 soms per kilo. Glass earns from five to seven soms per kilo. Clean, hard polyethylene is up to 35 soms. Dirty polyethylene gets eight soms per kilo,” Tursaliyeva said.
The contract with Beken Dos was terminated over safety concerns, however.
The plan going forward is for construction of a waste-processing plant. City hall says work on the facility, to be built with a $45 million investment from a consortium of Czech companies, will begin in October. The projection is for the authorities to recoup the outlay by taking charge of the garbage themselves and commercializing the process of sorting and recycling under a private-public partnership.
The municipal manager in charge of the landfill, Nurlan Djumaliyev, told Eurasianet that people who now make money from sorting trash will be hired to work at the processing plant. Around 90 percent of employees will either be nearby residents or people with experience working with trash, Djumaliyev said.
Ultimately, the goal is to nudge the public toward doing their own sorting.
In the winter of 2019, Rush.Data, a city research consulting company, studied around 400 kilos of garbage from Bishkek’s dumpsters. Their analysis showed that around half of the trash was food waste. Since it is not collected for recycling, this detritus would end up in the landfill, where it rotted and, often, eventually combusted.
Another 30 percent was composed of recyclable items like plastic, glass, and paper.
A couple of years ago, the authorities began installing separate trash cans for plastic, glass, paper, and food waste. This initiative cannot be called a particular success. Many give no heed to where they are dumping whatever item of garbage they are disposing of.
In January, the sorting experiment was advanced further by means of a pilot project at a large residential complex in northeast Bishkek, which was fitted with dumpsters separated by category. Beken Dos was given the contract to process the contents of the dumpsters.
The guiding principle remains that trash can be harvested for profit.
Kurmanbek Moldokulov, director of the Bishkek Development and Investment Promotion Agency, says city hall wants to fit new dumpsters with surveillance cameras.
“Trash should be a commodity. All the contents in the trash cans will be the property of the municipality, so no one can take anything from them,” Moldokulov told Sputnik news agency recently.
Unfortunately, the experiment has so far been something of a failure. Within days, dumpsters were overflowing with undifferentiated garbage. Things have barely improved since then.
Azhar Baisalova, a resident at the complex and a specialist in urban management, told Eurasianet that the project is struggling because nobody took the trouble to properly explain to people how the system is supposed to work.
“There was no work with the local community. They didn’t hold meetings. They didn’t send pictures to [resident] chat groups on how to sort trash correctly. They just installed the dumpsters, and that was it,” she said.
A similar trial in Osh has worked better. According to Tursaliyeva, the environmentalist, success there was achieved by having minders supervising the dumpsters. The attendants are on hand 24/7, explaining to members of the public how they should dispose of their garbage.
“It's not the most ideal method, but it works with our population. People will look back, be ashamed, and then after that dispose of their garbage in the right way,” Tursaliyeva said. “Unfortunately, we in Bishkek, with our behavior, still need a warden.”
The activist community is doing its bit too.
Tazar, the organization that Tursaliyeva co-founded, created an app that enables users to exchange recyclable trash for bonus points that can then be redeemed for goods and services. The same app lets users know the nearest of the 200 or so recycling points distributed around Bishkek.
Nargiza Korgoldoyeva, a 22-year-old Bishkek resident, says she started getting into recycling when she was still at university. Young people will often get involved in doing social work as a way to enrich their curriculum.
What began as an expedient eventually became a genuine passion for Korgoldoyeva.
“The sorting started with batteries. It was easy, I collected them at home. Then glass, because I was afraid that it would smash amid all the debris. Then I started collecting packaging, and then paper, cardboard and so on,” said Korgoldoyeva.
Her hope is that city authorities will finally start installing more facilities at which households are able to drop off different types of garbage separately.
“I want people to be informed about what is happening ahead of us, that we are not eternal, and that we can change the future,” she said. “I want each of us to understand that we are responsible not only for ourselves, but also for the future.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.