Monday, June 28, 2010

21st Century Waste on the Silk Road

21st Century Waste on the Silk Road

The Silk Road still plays the role of the world’s marketplace, where Chinese goods, Afghan opium, and oil are traded. Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest of the Central Asian countries, is at the center of where east meets west—geographically, politically, economically and culturally. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and is the largest landlocked country. It is rich with fossil fuel resources, and its Caspian Sea is being scavenged for its oil, which is mostly being exported to Russia.
Kazakhstan is constantly feeling its way between the western and eastern world. Bordering Russia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China, and housing parts of the Caspian and Aral Seas, Kazakhstan is of crucial importance as a bridge between east and west. On the one hand, its technology, government and business culture, education, and cafes are very European. On the other hand, inside the home is a different world. Not too long ago were they nomads, horsemeat is still commonly eaten, and a combination of Muslim and native spiritual traditions are followed.

We brought in our team of American recycling and waste management experts to share our best practices in the field. Our Kazakh partners who work for local environmental NGOs put together conferences in which we participated with local NGO and government representatives. As with all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is slowly stepping into its own identity and defining who is responsible for what. So, figuring out what to do with waste and who should handle it is still a bit “up in the air.”
In Berkeley, California, we tend to take for granted our well developed three-bin-waste system, where we can even throw our food scraps into our green bins and at the end of month can take all the fresh compost we need free of cost from the city. That system is even operated by our non-profit organization, the Ecology Center. In Kazakhstan, it’s a bit of a different situation.

From egg shells, to plastic bags, to batteries, to asbestos-it’s all going into one big landfill and being burned in Kazakhstan. There are plenty of people grappling with what to do with the waste and how to possibly make the management of waste profitable.

We were very happily surprised to see how well our environmental NGO partners are doing. In the past years, our partners were poorly organized and had a challenging, if at all existent, relationship with the government. Now, we are sitting at the table with our NGO partners together with Managers of the Ministry of the Environment. At times, the government now calls on the NGOs as experts and consultants. That’s a victory.

Imagine being under communist rule for almost a century. Imagine a world where the government took care of everything and neither the individual nor the community had a say in decision-making. In that same world, you could trade in your old clothes for new clothes, return glass bottles, and have all your utilities provided for by the government. Post-Soviet citizens are used to the government handling everything and neither Russia’s Medvedev nor Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev is offering much assistance in such social services. Opportunists see this as a golden time to open businesses—and they are.
Our colleagues have made suggestions to the local government to create a waste management system that would collect and separate bio-waste and possibly paper, plastic, and glass. The question is, once you collect it and separate it, where does the waste go? Even in California, we are shipping much of our recyclable goods to China to be recycled. Kazakhstan would like to create a one-stop plant where the waste would be brought to a central place and be sorted and recycled.

Some believe that the Ministry of the Environment of Kazakhstan will step forward and take these recommendations. Others don’t have much faith in the government to do anything and rely on the business sector to pick up the slack. Once there is some proof that the end product is profitable, perhaps the investors will appear.

Often, when we make our presentations to our Russian-speaking partners, they feel discouraged because our American models of success look so simple and out of reach to them. Our U.S. recycling specialist made a presentation about composting at a conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The representatives from the Ministry of the Environment were ready to leave before the presentation even began. They said, “You are from California, where you don’t even have a winter, and you think that we can compost year-round in Kazakhstan! It’s impossible!” Alex continued with his presentation, which he had specifically prepared based on comparable cold climates such as Alaska and Canada. After his presentation, the government officials said, “Let’s do it!” We’ll see what that means in due time, although all were satisfied with an initial verbal agreement.

Most of our colleagues look to European models of waste management, recycling, energy saving technologies and renewable energy. Our Kazakh partners are convinced that the enclosed incinerators are environmentally clean. I’m of course skeptical, as I’m a Californian environmentalist, and have a gut reaction that says “no to incineration no matter what!” An enclosed, clean incinerator, sounds too much like “clean coal” to me—it doesn’t exist. But, of course I am curious and open to learning from the environmentally progressive countries of Germany and France who commonly use these clean incinerators. The only incinerators we are familiar with in the U.S. are of old technology and don’t meet any environmentally clean standards. Something we should dare look into?

For all we know, soon we may be looking to the lands of the Silk Road for the latest environmental technology. Tune in for more in the next installation.


  1. It sounds like Kazakhstan just gained some recycling enthusiasts. Kudos, Melissa!
    What's the story behind that wonderful picture?

  2. This is my wonderful friend who i met at a Kazakh wedding. She's playing a Kazakh traditional folk instrument-the Dombra. You can look at more of my pictures of Kazakhstan at: