In one of the bedroom suburbs of Moscow, among grey blocks of flats, a colourful spot has appeared – a trash can for separate garbage. Different containers for plastic, glass, paper and organic waste puzzled the residents. A person, when facing changes, passes five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. The new trash can, a small but much-needed step towards recycling, stopped at the first stage of denial. Muscovites continued to throw mixed waste into the plastic or paper containers. In this unequal battle of ingrained habits against great ideas to recycle, the former won, and the new can was replaced in a month.
Currently, only around 6% of garbage is recycled in Russia – the remaining 94% is sent to landfills, covering about 4 million hectares of land – larger than the area of such European countries as Italy or Germany. Russia is buried in waste. According to the data of the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation, in 2018 there were over 30 billion tons of waste on the territory of the country – 205 tons per inhabitant.
Although the country’s government adopted waste management reforms about six years ago, the interim results indicate a lack of significant progress in the area. The passive interest in recycling is shown not only by officials but also by the population of Russia itself: only a small part of residents consider large landfills to be an urgent environmental problem. The government’s timid attempts to start recycling and the resistance of residents cannot but cause bewilderment.
In 2021, when garbage recycling is a reality in Western countries and even children know that paper must not be thrown into a glass container, in Russia, it remains at the level of stories from relatives and friends coming back from Europe. Why is the environment in Russia not a close friend requiring protection, but rather a naive acquaintance from whom much can be borrowed without giving anything in return? Perhaps the answer lies in the Soviet mentality.
For almost 70 years of the existence of the USSR, the administration of the Union prioritized industrialization and high productivity over the protection of nature, whose resources were largely exploited. The desire to reshape nature to meet human needs dominated the minds of Soviet citizens for decades. Five-year plans, industrial expansion, and especially the needs of WWII turned entire regions of the USSR into developed industrial centres. The production was started in the shortest possible time, and environmental issues were far from a priority.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of the barbaric way of achieving economic growth practised in the USSR. An unprecedented level of violence against nature was reached in the Aral Sea, when the Soviet government decided to divert two main rivers flowing into the sea: the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. In this way, the administration planned to solve the water shortage problem in cotton planting Asian republics. As a result of such a large-scale change in nature, the Aral Sea almost disappeared. Now the once one of the largest seas of Asia is nothing more than a chain of small lakes.
Another example of impressive scale is one of the world’s largest diamond quarries, located in the small Siberian town of Mirny. Previously a desert area due to severe frosts (up to -70 °C) and permafrost, Mirny became the centre of the Soviet diamond industry, which was supposed to double the economic potential of the Soviet Union. Although the quarry was closed in 2001, it remains one of the largest in the world. Its volume is so enormous that helicopters do not fly over it: a crater 500 meters deep with a diameter of more than 1 km creates ascending air currents, sucking flying objects in.
Such ambitious projects of the Soviet Union perfectly illustrate the idea of human domination over nature. It is not surprising that in modern Russia, where a significant part of the population either lived most of their life in the USSR or was raised in the post-Soviet space, recycling and environmental protection do not evoke a great response in people’s hearts. Is it possible to break this Soviet wall of indifference to nature, built brick by brick for decades? Probably, like any once-solid structure, it will collapse by itself under the weight of time. What is important is that Russia must be ready for this, not to remain under the rubble of environmental disasters.