The Western Balkans lag behind in the fight against climate change and environmental protection. The signature of the ambitious Sofia Declaration on the Green Agenda in November 2020 was considered a meaningful step forward. It implies the region’s alignment with Union’s policy by significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions and unlocking the economic potential of climate neutrality.
Two years later, the situation remains gloomy, and the reduction of the consumption footprint is far from becoming a reality. Significant efforts have been made at the regional and domestic levels. The heavy consumerist approach continues to dominate the Western Balkan societies, while waste production and management are unsustainable for the ecosystem's preservation and citizens' health.
Kosovo's waste (mis)management bet
Waste management causes a headache for almost all succeeding governments of Kosovo. Since the country declared independence, both economic support and the expertise of international donors have not adequately contributed to safeguarding the riverbanks from an overwhelming amount of plastic waste. Illegal landfills have risen, and many recreational and public areas have been heavily polluted in rural and urban clusters.
Kosovo's strategic framework has frequently recognized the inadequacy of the waste management system in place. Nevertheless, the legislation in force is incomplete and only partially aligned with the EU acquis. To date, a lack of organization and classification system for waste separation has engulfed Kosovo's decentralization approach to reversing the situation on the ground. The continuous intervention delays have coupled not only the significant issues but also shown widespread political irresponsibility, citizens' malpractices, and missed investment opportunities in infrastructure and skills.
Municipal authorities struggle with limited waste collection capacity in all settlements due to the lack of machinery and equipment for waste management, inadequate investments in the sanitary landfills, and a low level of cost recovery for services. Moreover, the existing legal vacuums and unclear definitions of delegating tasks and responsibilities have created additional room for abuse. The lack of knowledge, awareness, and education among employees and the general population has contributed to the current system's failure.
In its last report, the Kosovo Agency for Environmental Protection stated that the amount of generated municipal solid waste in 2020 reached 480.648,62 tonnes, out of which 92,8% was disposed of in the sanitary landfills. The remains are abandoned in illegal dumping and/or only partially recycled by the informal sector. Back in 2013, the government had set an ambitious target of 100% waste collection to be reached by 2020. Unfortunately, this ambitious goal was almost impossible to realize: waste collection coverage equaled 85,3% for the households in 2020, 53,7% for the business sector, and 84,8% for the public institutions. The reported figures correspond solely to the collected quantities, while no official estimates are yet provided concerning the uncollected segment of the generated municipal solid waste. In front of the lack of data and standardized reporting from all actors, the authorities are not able to provide a full range of comparable information.
In general, it is assumed that the amount of produced waste has grown over the years. Despite the collection efforts, the reported number of dumpsites in the 38 municipalities of Kosovo is 1.189. These illegal landfills are categorized as per their size, and it is worrisome that almost half of them (exactly 558) is significantly big in surface and waste amount disposed of.
An emerging new market niche?
The inadequate infrastructure and the considerable number of illegal dumpsites make it challenging to win the bet at this stage. However, the match does not seem to be lost yet.
In general, there is no right moment to incentivize capillary consumer-targeted educational and awareness initiatives on the waste separation at source, achievable through close cooperation of state authorities with different societal actors and community leaders. In particular, while a certain number of circular economy-oriented social enterprises have been mushrooming, Kosovo's untapped economic potential can be unleashed by applying adequate economic instruments to establish a new market. It would be beneficial for the environment and, nonetheless, create new job opportunities for younger generations.
There is little doubt that investing in undiscovered market sectors does not only require a different “doing business” approach. It also needs the allocation of significant financial envelopes with solid support from local authorities and the political willingness of their representatives. Moreover, the leadership should also prioritize environmental issues in the top political agenda, which in turn should rely on policy interventions for strengthening good governance for the functioning of the market economy and on the rule of law and legal competitiveness.
This holistic approach, whose components can play positive spillover effects, can work in tandem with Kosovo's environmental strategy until 2030. In recognizing new opportunities to adopt subsidy schemes for business operators in the recycling field, both application and implementation may contribute to a U-turn towards the emergence of a new niche. In such an undertaking, Kosovo's authorities should follow a well-coordinated communication with the EU and the region's counterparts to incentivize the country's integration into the Western Balkans and EU supply chains.