Issue 6, 2011. December-January



Monica Ellena

"Just one word... plastics!" When Benjamin, the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1960 film "The Graduate", was looking for career advice, plastics were the hot new thing. Since then millions of graduates have gone into plastics. Now, decades later, millions of people across the world are looking at how to get out of them, through recycling.

But you won't find many of them in Georgia. As the lack of colored containers to separate household waste suggests, recycling is low on the country's agenda.

It is not as if Georgia is not short of trash. A recent study by the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) suggested that there is the necessary base resource for developing a strong and economically viable recycling sector. Tbilisi alone produces about 0.6-0.7 kg of trash per capita per day (around 60 percent of the EU average), while regional municipalities are responsible for about 0.4-0.5 kg. 100% of the municipal solid waste which is sent to landfills.

"There is no national policy, no strategic plan," says Tamuna Gugushvili, environmental expert at the Aarhus Center, a environmental NGO. "We lack the mechanisms to support the recycling business, such as reduced tax or cost of utilities. The landfill in Lilo, operational for a year now, allocates an area for recycling, but so far there is no developed infrastructure for the collection and separation of recyclable rubbish."

The Georgian Ministry of Environment Protection has completed a draft new legal framework on environmental protection that includes a national strategic waste management policy.

"The document has been drafted with international consultants; it is mostly harmonized with EU directives and requirements," explains Khatuna Chiviladze, head of the Waste and Chemical Division of the Ministry.

Recycling is also included, but limited resources mean it may struggle to take off.

A Wasted Opportunity?

"The lack of legislation is not the main obstacle though; there is no real legislation on scrap metal either, but it is still Georgia's third largest export," says Alan Saffery, component leader for the manufacturing and services sectors of the USAID-funded Economic Prosperity Initiative (EPI). "One of the key issues is that trash is perceived to have no value. Once we know how much and what types of waste are being thrown out and have a clearer idea of market demands, then I'm sure the private sector would jump in," he adds.

Perhaps the best way to implement an effective recycling system is to look at commercial waste first and move to residential households over time. "It's easier to train people: experience in Europe showed us that educating households requires more time," says Saffery. "It is also more cost effective as we talk about higher volumes."

One of the easiest commercial entry points for recycling is packaging. To further understand the potential for growth within Georgia's packaging sector, EPI undertook research on the profile and capacities of paper, glass and plastic packaging companies.

Poor market linkages were the first problem they found. Production volumes are low because there is limited demand for domestically produced packaging; hence the majority of packaging is imported.

"With companies undertaking little marketing," Saffery explains, "they have little clear awareness of market needs in terms of quality, style, strength, design and utility." Consider paper: Georgian companies produce low quality toilet paper and napkins, but struggle to sell them in a market saturated with imported products. Reliance on imports also undermines domestic production of plastics, wood and articles of wood, cork, wood pulp, paperboard, printed materials and glass.

Indeed, in one EPI report, a Tbilisi-based freight forwarder admitted to throwing away significant quantities of waste cardboard, at cost, despite the fact there were cardboard manufacturers willing to pay for waste cardboard.

The monopoly power of some local companies reinforces the status quo.

"There is a business lobby to keep business-as-usual," states Nana Janashia, CENN's director. "There are certain local companies well-connected with government who definitely prefer things to continue as they are since the situation brings quite good money with little effort."

Saffery adds that "there appears to be a lack of support from Tbilisi Municipality for the development of industry or a public municipal-wide recycling collection system."

Opportunities for Waste

In theory, Georgia's advantages should enable it to reduce its reliance on imports. The cost of labor and energy are very competitive when compared with Turkey and Ukraine, and raw material costs are similar. There are no tariffs on the importation of machinery and/or equipment. Even after factoring in transportation, producing packaging in Georgia may be as much as 20 percent cheaper than anywhere else.

Some ad hoc initiatives show the way forward. CENN, for example, signed the first ever organized paper recycling programme in Georgia called "Green Office". It ran for almost ten years with over a hundred organizations handing over their waste paper to be recycled. Now it has been transferred to the Ministry of Youth.

There are currently a handful of operational recycling plants, mainly in and around Tbilisi, focusing on paper, plus one for PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the most common consumer plastic) and one for glass.

An estimated 200,000 tonnes of PET are produced every year in Georgia, according to Enrico Mosulishvili, executive director of the Caucasian PET factory in Rustavi. This Italian-founded company supplements its production with recycling, as it enables the company to re-use some of its own raw material.

The numbers show how much room there is for growth. "But without proper political support, recycling cannot become a profitable business like it is in Europe," Mr. Mosulishvili says. Other barriers to entry include high bank interest rates and the absence of economic and environmental incentives.

Perhaps the biggest change needs to take place in people's minds. If the Georgian public were more aware of the benefits of recycling, then they would pressure the government to make more effort, thinks Nana Janashia. If that happens, perhaps future Georgian graduates can start to think about careers to get out of plastics - with or without Mrs. Robinson.