KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian authorities are launching a massive nationwide project to transform the country’s dangerous and inefficient waste disposal network as officials admit the former Soviet state is facing an "ecological catastrophe".
Ukraine incinerates or recycles less than five percent of the more than 50 million tonnes of domestic waste produced in the country each year.
Some 50 percent to 70 percent of all urban waste is recycled on average in the rest of Europe.
The remainder of the Ukraine’s waste is dumped in more than 4,000 landfill sites that not only take up 7 percent of the country’s land area – more than its national parks combined – but which, according to state environmental bodies, fail to meet even the most basic of environmental safety standards.
And there are now serious concerns that millions of tons of toxic waste buried in poorly secured sites are posing a severe threat to human health and the environment.
The new project, which the government wants to see operational within the next two years, will create new waste disposal complexes in ten major cities with waste recycled or incinerated to produce energy fed back into the national grid.
Vladyslav Kaskiv, head of the Ukraine’s State Agency for Investment and National Projects which is promoting the project, told IPS: "This has the potential to pull the Ukraine back from the brink of an ecological catastrophe."
The problems of the country’s poor waste disposal network date back to its transformation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In the Soviet era Ukrainians took their own containers to markets to buy milk and cream, beer was sold from tankers in the street and food items were wrapped in bio-degradable paper.
Plastic bags were almost unheard of, all glass was recycled, little or nothing was sold in cartons and there was no extraneous packaging as it was considered bourgeois.
Landfill sites have since been used to deal with the growing volumes of household waste.
But the burial of hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste has left a litany of ecological woes.
According to the Ukrainian State Sanitary Inspectorate, 85 percent to 90 percent of all the landfill sites fail to meet even the most basic of environmental safety standards.
The inspectorate says that 43 percent are potentially dangerous in terms of air pollution, 34 percent in terms of soil pollution, 28 percent in terms of water table pollution and 23 percent run the risk of polluting water reservoirs.
Combinations of urban and industrial waste in the same landfill sites has led to waste degrading into a thick toxic sludge that is permeating the subsoil and leaching through to upper rock layers below ground.
The release of millions of tonnes of methane gas – which not only poses health risks but also has a global warming potential 22 times higher than carbon dioxide - from decomposition at the sites is also a grave problem.
The two incineration plants in the country – in Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk - consume just 2-3 percent of the nation’s total waste output and the technology they use is outdated, highly ineffective and degrades the air quality in surrounding areas.
Ukraine has no modern waste recycling plants.
Local ecological movements also say there is lax security, monitoring and controls at the landfill sites, increasing risks to the public.
They also point to ineffective or absent punitive actions against those breaking laws on waste disposal which has allowed for the rise of illegal and dangerous waste dumping, while municipalities have been criticised for doing nothing to develop waste recycling.
Only last month local ecological groups warned of dire consequences if the current system of dumping almost all of the country’s waste in landfills is left unchecked.
Following a meeting of its scientific council last month, the All-Ukrainian Ecology League’s Tetiana Timochko told Ukrainian media: "Sanitary and industrial waste are put together (in landfills), which leads to a fermentation process unknown to science. To what kind of new viruses it will give birth, we just don't know."
Only the construction of new facilities with modern, efficient technology combined with legislation to ensure waste is disposed of ecologically soundly and rigorous enforcement of those laws will help resolve the current problems, ecologists argue.
Dr Viktor Kyrylenko, head of the Kiev branch of the Association of Energy Efficient Cities of Ukraine, told IPS: "After Chernobyl the environment is something we should be taking very seriously indeed. With all its buried waste, Ukraine is missing out on a huge potential resource not to mention the impending risk of ecological disaster."
The pilot phase of the Clean City project, which is planned to be financed through public-private partnerships with the state and city administrations, will see the construction of complexes in ten cities.
They will have an expected combined processing capacity of over 2.5 million tonnes per year and will double the amount of waste that the Ukraine incinerates or recycles by 2014.
Each complex is expected to recycle around 28 percent of its processed waste with the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity to be supplied to the national grid.
Few local ecology groups are familiar with the plans, but they agree that something must be done about the parlous state of the Ukraine’s landfill sites.
Timochko said: "We have to come up with effective measures to recycle waste, to provide proper financing (for recycling), and introduce more ecological waste recycling technologies."
International development groups have also said plans to tackle the problem are to be welcomed.