Trash Is Literally Making a Big Stink Outside Of Moscow

Jan 23, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 12:39 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The outskirts of Moscow are starting to smell. That's because Russia doesn't recycle. All trash, whether it's household waste, glass, plastic, paper or metal, still goes into the same bin. That has led to mountains of garbage just outside Moscow's city limits. Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally intervened to stop one monster dump from taking over a suburb. As NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim found out, that only made things worse for neighboring areas.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The cry for help came to the Kuchino landfill just east of Moscow during President Putin's annual call-in show in June. On national TV, a desperate resident named Yelena Mikhailenko begged Putin to do something about the enormous garbage dump next to her house, the size of more than 100 football fields and counting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YELENA MIKHAILENKO: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "We don't know what to do," she said, "so you're our last hope." A week later, Putin ordered the Kuchino dump closed, and the very next day its gates shut forever. Today Kuchino is the domain of a pack of stray dogs and an Austrian entrepreneur named Oliver Kayser. His company has drilled wells into the dump to collect and burn off the noxious gases produced inside the 200-foot-high landfill. A few steps from the flare, you can detect the unmistakable smell of rotten eggs. That's hydrogen sulfide leaking from the ground beneath your feet. Eventually, Kayser's company hopes to use the gas to generate electricity. But for now, they've at least reduced the smell.

OLIVER KAYSER: We have less complains than before. Before we had about 50, 100 complaints a day. Now there are maybe two or three. They should build a park afterwards, an attraction park or something, because you have really nice view.

KIM: Kayser wants the Kuchino landfill to be a model for the rest of Russia of how to mitigate the environmental effects of garbage dumps. But there's a problem. Since this dump closed, neighboring landfills have been getting even more garbage. People living near those dumps have taken to the streets in protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Russian).

KIM: At this rally in July, people shouted down a local official with cries of shame, shame. Yelena Gavrilova is a schoolteacher who attended that protest. When she and her husband built a house in the village of Torbeyevo more than 20 years ago, there was no garbage dump. Now there's an enormous landfill.

YELENA GAVRILOVA: (Through interpreter) We went to the prosecutors, the governor and our local officials. Either you move us out or close the dump. The answer I got was, thanks for your civic engagement.

KIM: That's not to say the Russian government doesn't want to catch up with European countries in managing its trash. But the plans for a national garbage separation system won't go into effect for another 10 years, and the first waste incinerators have yet to be built outside Moscow.

Local politician Irina Astakhova says people are afraid the incinerators will cause new environmental problems.

IRINA ASTAKHOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Unfortunately, as we build capitalism in Russia," she says, "everything is geared to maximizing profits. The environment takes last place." Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF EKALI AND ZHU'S "BLAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.