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  2. Profit from waste. How a resident of Syktyvkar convinced her neighbors in a high-rise building to make money off of recyclables

Profit from waste. How a resident of Syktyvkar convinced her neighbors in a high-rise building to make money off of recyclables

Dmitry Stepanovsky
Arina Sazhina
Photos by Kirill Shane

Arina Sazhina and her husband started sorting household waste four years ago, when blue and yellow bins for paper and plastic of the PVS LLC appeared in the yards of Syktyvkar. But the main shift in Arina occurred during the protests at Shies, when thousands of people united against the import of waste from Moscow to Arkhangelsk Oblast: Arina could not understand why waste should have been wrapped in film and buried in the ground for 30 years. Shies was defended, but Arina could not be stopped anymore: together with her friends, she holds volunteer clean-ups in suburbs, has organized a site for collecting recyclables in her house, thanks to which the residents have earned about 100 thousand rubles for beautification within six months.

Garbage room owner

Arina Sazhina lives in a new Zhemchuzhina Ezhvy (‘pearl of Ezhva’, a microdistrict of Syktyvkar) Housing Complex. This nine-storied building with 197 flats stands among five-storied prefab flat blocks built in the last century.

Arina, a smiling young woman of a small stature with a magnetic key on her wrist instead of a bracelet, met us at the entrance. One door leads to the stairwells, the second — to a room, which, according to the project, was supposed to be a garbage room. The residents have refused the garbage chute, so there is a secondary raw materials' collection point here now.

 

"This is our ‘little Finland’," says Arina, as she opens the door to the garbage room. "In Finland, people are conscious when it comes to waste, a lot of garbage is recycled, everything is kept in order. We also have everything clean and tidy; nothing smells bad."

10 m² are tiled, each of the eight multicolored bins is designed for a specific waste fraction. There is not enough clear space, but two people would not bump into each other.

Two girls walked past us and began sorting out what was in their bags. They put one of the bottles in the wrong container, Arina corrected them and showed how to find the right marking on the package. She comes here several times a day to keep everything in order and help the residents understand the aspects of sorting.

"We collect polypropylene containers here, there are quite a lot of them: these are containers from sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurts, mayonnaise. We collect their lids and stack them into each other, so that they take up minimum space. One bag of them is collected within two weeks." With that, Arina gave us a provocation, asking us to find the difference between two identical jars of sour cream. The bottom of the first says, "05 PP" — this is polypropylene, it can be recycled; the bottom of the second says, "06 PS" — this is polystyrene, it cannot be handed over for money in Syktyvkar, only for free: there are volunteers who hold Clean Saturday and Complex Plastic Actions for citizens, they send the collected secondary raw materials for recycling to another region.

 

Yellow containers are for bags and films. The next bin is for plastic bottles marked "01 PET" and with a characteristic “thingie”, as Arina calls it, on the bottom. Another container is for flasks, cans, and bottles of yogurt with a joint on the bottom. Next there come boxes for paper, hardboard, egg trays, tetrahedral package. There is even a special box for text-weight paper. It is called "belyak", one gets more money from giving it for recycling. Then there is a container for metal and aluminum, clean cans and metal lids are put here. There are smaller containers for vegetable oil bottles, plastic caps from tetrahedral package, foil, aerosol cans, discount cards, corks from wine bottles next to larger bins.

 

The "garbage room owner" is sure that their reception point is the first site of this kind in a block of flats in Russia: the young woman regularly monitors information about waste sorting in the regions, is looking for something that she would find interesting and new in this area, and she has only seen news about eco-points and centers that work for the whole city, rather than for a single house, so far.

Simple math

In addition to an instruction on what kind of garbage to put there, there is a printed sheet with prices for giving 1 kg of secondary raw materials for recycling on every container. For example, 1 kg of PET plastic is 30 one-and-a-half-liter bottles. You collect one bag — you get 100 rubles. Arina delivers a batch of 20 bags to the KomiEkovtor Company and PVS LLC every two weeks — specialists take them themselves and transfer 2 thousand rubles.

 

Arina is a shop assistant in a store in Ezhva. She is very reasonable: she sees the value in every plastic bottle.

"I thought yesterday: ‘Okay, well, summer season has come, everyone is buying water and drinks in one-and-a-half-liter bottles now. Each bottle will bring 1 ruble 25 kopecks if given for recycling. If all 197 flats bring one bottle a day, then we will have more than seven thousand rubles a month. And if they bring five, it is already more than 30 thousand rubles.’ And I only count this using one-and-a-half-liter bottles. But there are also aluminum and tin cans, cardboard, and other various fractions. Why throw it into the garbage, if you can hand it over? There are all the conditions for this — just bring it here," Arina says.

 

She publishes quarterly reports on how many kilograms of different kinds of waste the residents have given for recycling and how much money they have made off of it for residents in a community on vk.com. The young woman puts up similar reports on the garbage room’s wall. The house has made 99 thousand rubles off of waste within six months.

The council of the house will decide what to spend the money on. People want good benches, a sports ground, an alcove, flowerpots, beautiful flower beds. Arina dreamily talks about her big goal — a closed site for mixed wastes instead of open street containers. Residents would bring their garbage bags through the door with a magnetic key, and filled containers could be rolled out to the garbage truck through the second, wider, door.

"We currently have an open site for mixed wastes, there are four containers, dogs and birds ransack there, it all flies apart and looks ugly," Arina explains. "If we make a closed site, we can do with two containers and reduce our payments for carry-out service. We pay about 130 rubles a month according to the standard per person now, but we could pay in arrears. Of course, a lot of money is needed for the construction of the site, 300–350 thousand rubles instead of 20–30. It takes a lot of time to save them. Or we need funding in the form of grants."

Awakened by Shies

Arina visited an activist camp at the Shies station on the border of Arkhangelsk Oblast and Komi three times: she could not stay away from a story that affected many people. In the summer of 2018, locals discovered that someone had cut down a large area of forest near the Shies station. That was how people learned about plans to build a landfill for waste import from Moscow there. Initiators planned to store waste in the form of briquettes packed in film. The spontaneous camp of opponents of the landfill’s construction soon expanded and became a place of resistance: hundreds of people from different regions and even countries kept a round-the-clock watch here, locked down the construction equipment access, stood up in a human chain, filed numerous complaints about the actions of police officers and security guards. The defenders of Shies have won, people sometimes use the phrase "second Shies" to show the scale of eco-protests in their regions. Arina can no longer live like she used to:

"Eco-consciousness has awaked in many people after Shies. Including me. This situation pushes you even more: something needs to be done. Not only do you sort waste yourself, you also need to motivate people, you need to start cleaning the land, then make a site for waste sorting."

At the end of 2020, Arina came to the homeowners' association and shared her idea that the whole house could collect waste for recycling. The company suggested going further and creating an eco-point in a spare garbage room. Arina talked to the residents in the courtyard after that. Many of them supported the idea. So, Arina found a company in Kazan that sold garbage containers on the web, ordered them at her own expense, installed them in the garbage room, made instructions for sorting.

 

"It was simply my gift to our house. I do not need my money back, because I did a very good thing, and I am proud of that," says Arina. "I have a job, I do not need any additional earnings, so everything is for the benefit of our house, our residents. Hopefully, other houses and homeowners' associations would adopt this initiative and create similar eco-sites."

So, people starting bringing their garbage — eventually, more and more of it. According to Arina's calculations, about half of families are involved into waste sorting now, it is gradually becoming their lifestyle. The young woman asks the rest, who have not been involved yet, to bring at least paper or a plastic bottle.

"I am going to do this so long as I live in this house (and I am going to grow old here). It is absolutely not difficult, I like it." And we can really see that Arina is inspired by what she is doing. "We have everything for life here, why not do something good? I even wondered why I had not done this before. There comes a feeling of success, that I may have not lived my life in vain, I have made my small contribution to the conservation of natural resources. This gives me strength and enthusiasm. My personal benefit is to see happy people — we all want to live in a clean and reasonable world. And the overall benefit for the house is expressed in money."

A lot will change when eco-stations, which will pay for recyclables from 100 grams, open in cities and districts. There will be a small bonus for people — they will be given at least some money for giving secondary raw materials for recycling. If there is a kopeck, then there is a ruble. Or, as I say, if there is a gram, then there is a kilogram.

According to Arina, entrepreneurs consider it unprofitable to create stations for receiving and sorting household waste so far. There are no necessary laws, no production facilities, logistics is quite complicated and expensive due to long distances. But when there is a will, there is a way. Even people from remote villages can build a shed and collect sorted waste there, order a car every two months. The necessary volumes of plastic are collected quickly, there gradually will be more public money and fewer spontaneous landfills around the village. This can be a win-win situation, given the will.


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