Anastasia Kuvshinova is an activist from the St. Petersburg-based "Separate Collection" waste sorting movement. She talked to us about why "activist" is still a curse word in Russia and what the obstacles are to successfully managing waste.
(Ksenia) – Being an activist in Russia is not as common or accepted as it is in the West. Before we go into details about the waste sorting movement, I want to talk to you about being an activist in Russia in general. How does your activism fit into a broader Russian social context?
(Anastasia) – I think this trend [activism] is actively growing in Russia right now. I don’t want to use the word “activism,” because it still has negative connotations in the Russian language (it still means a person who is a bit weird, very left, very idealistic, and generally doesn’t fit into the society very well). I don’t want to use the word “volunteering,” because it implies some amount of time and effort. What I mean is this relation to your surrounding reality, when a person begins to understand that their house, their street is theirs and that they can change it without enrolling into any formal organizations. I feel that I am a part of this trend.
I recently read a Carnegie Center article about the difference between, roughly speaking, “Eastern” and “Western” ways of state governance. The “Eastern” type is described by high levels of centralization, strong hierarchies, like in the USSR, China, etc. In the “Western” type of governance, the power is more distributed between various groups. For example, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the power was distributed between various independent cities, and within the cities, there were many independent guilds and so on. This second type speaks to me much more, and it speaks to many others around me. They are ready to take responsibility for what happens around them and ready to do something about it. I’m talking not only about activists but also about businesses, like restaurants that decide to reduce their waste. It also applies to ordinary people like my mom, who always calls the companies when she doesn’t like something, like when they pack eggs in too much wrapping.
– Now let’s dive into the topic of waste management. What is the situation with waste sorting in Russia today?
– Waste management in Russia really depends on the situation in any given region. Russia has now implemented a so-called “Waste Reform” across the country. Now waste in every Russian federal region is managed by one regional operator, a big firm tasked to treat all the waste from that region. Therefore, if the regional operator doesn’t want to sort and recycle, they can just send all the waste to landfills. Sometimes regional operators refuse to even use the existing sorting infrastructure. For example, in Tomsk, the regional operator didn’t use the waste sorting infrastructure put in place by local firms prior to the “Waste Reform”.
In Moscow, there are several operators, and they have to negotiate everything between one another.
In Moscow, they’ve already established a two-container system – one for recyclable waste, and one for all other waste (this only started on January 1, 2020). Naturally, people don’t know how to use them; there is a general lack of education about waste management. Also, people don’t trust the operators that treat waste. It’s a unique situation there, but I hope it’s changing for the better.
In St. Petersburg we still don’t have a regional operator. We have around 3000 containers for waste sorting. All those containers are operated by private companies, who usually accumulate the recyclables, and then sell it to third parties to recycle, or do it themselves and sell the end product. There are companies that do only that, there are also companies that treat all kinds of waste, recyclable, and non-recyclable.
– Tell us more about the Separate Collection movement and what it does?
– Our full name in English is Association for Ecology and Environmental Protection «Separate Waste Collection», or just "Separate Waste Collection". The movement started in St. Petersburg in 2011. It has regional offices in around ten Russian cities.
I know the most about our work in St. Petersburg. Here we’ve put a lot of effort into developing near-home waste sorting. We are trying to develop a network of stationary waste sorting containers across the city. We have pop-up waste collection events, but they are not consistent or scalable: we can’t accept the waste from five million people living in St. Petersburg at a mobile recycling station. Stationary containers are the best alternative… We don’t own or operate any infrastructure. Our mission is to connect local residents with waste management businesses. We research the market, review waste operators, and check if they treat their waste correctly.
We also do a lot of educational work, publish instructions on how to install containers and not break many norms and laws, how to convince their building management company to install a container, and how to educate the neighbors to use it correctly.
In addition to the near-house sorting, we are constantly working on expanding our reach and awareness: we hold events, lectures, participate in events with our informational stands. We hold events in schools, kindergartens, or sometimes in IT companies. We also consult businesses to help make their events more ecological and reduce waste. And, as I mentioned before, we organize pop-up recycling events in different parts of the city every month.
– How did you become a volunteer with Separate Collection?
– I am a freelance designer and English teacher, and I felt like I was confined to my house, so I deliberately searched for volunteer opportunities and for a community. I knew about Separate Collection because I’d already used their mobile recycling points to drop off my recycling every month. They needed a photographer for one of those events, and I’m pretty good at photography, so I decided to go. I took the photos. I pointed out a couple of things to improve on their VKontakte [Russian social media network] page, gave some suggestions about how to present information more effectively, and volunteered to design some social media images. Gradually, I became the coordinator for the movement’s online resources, as well as public relations and media.
– What is hard about your activism?
– A point of frustration for me is when I see people writing things like “recycling is a lie” or “it’s the government’s responsibility to install recycling infrastructure.”
I agree, our government should do it if we lived in an ideal world. But I am practical. I don’t concentrate on how things should be in an ideal world. I think about the fastest and most effective way to reach my goal. I don’t need the world to become ideal, I need us to have an effective waste sorting system. If I decide to wait for our government and count on them to do it without any participation from local businesses and activists – it’ll never happen in my lifetime.
– What are the most important environmental problems in Russia? Is the lack of recycling near the top?
– Waste sorting is not the most important environmental issue in Russia. It’s not even the most important waste management issue. In order not to drown in waste, the amount of waste needs to be reduced. The pyramid of waste management is "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". First, we need to stop producing excess [waste]. Not all packaging is needed. Even if we can recycle all the packaging, a lot of resources will be wasted on production. Even though the recycling process we release greenhouse gases, use up water, burn fuels in transportation. The first task is to stop producing so much excess. This is not only a Russian problem but a global one.
It’s very hard to pinpoint what the main environmental problem is, because they all come in a bundle. For example, this summer , we had the Siberian forest fires. These demonstrated that there weren’t enough firefighters and emergency services lacked financing, but also that it was probably a consequence of climate change. Climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it is connected to production and industry. It’s a tight knot which is impossible to untie into separate threads.