Trash islands bring Balkan waste crisis to the surface

Framed by rolling hills andfarmhouses, the emerald waters of Potpeckolake were once a picturesquefishing spot in western Serbia, reports AFP.

But recently, the smell itself was enough to turn away visitors from areservoir filled with a sprawling mass of trash — one of several enormous build-ups in the region that have brought the Balkans’ garbage crisis into plain view.

“It’s very ugly,” sighed MilomirMijovic, a 34-year-old who lives nearby,as he stood near the shore of the lake whose waters were hidden beneath an8,000 cubic metre spread of plastic bottles, styrofoam and other detritus, frozen together with sticks and mud.

“I have seven children and I am sad not to be able to take them fishing, orcome here in summer to the beach,” he said.

The Western Balkans are home to some of Europe’s wildest rivers and mostpristine tracts of nature.

But failing waste management systems across the region are threatening theenvironment and public health.

Heavy rains in January highlighted the long-running problem after floodsswept garbage from roadsides and other illegal dumps into rivers.

The trash accumulated at hydro-power dams, such as in Potpecko which ispart of the Lim river that flows down from Montenegro, as well as at a dam inthe scenic Drina river in eastern Bosnia.

Clearing such garbage clumps has become a regular activity for damoperators, though the recent masses were larger than normal.

“We can’t solve this problem, we can only repair it — we pick up thegarbage that the municipalities leave on the banks,” said TomislavPopovic, who works at the power plant on the Drina, where objects ranging from television sets to an old football were conjoined together in the island of trash.

“We have even seen images of bulldozers pushing garbage right into theriver,” he told AFP, adding that the dam collects some 8,000 cubic metres of waste annually.

Across the region, effective waste management is held back by low budgets,outdated infrastructure and a lack of urgency among officials and parts of the public.

Recycling is minimal in most states, while illegal dumpsites are a commoneyesore along rural roads and on the outskirts of towns and cities.

In North Macedonia, scenic mountain views are often marred by plastic bagscaught on tree limbs or heaps of roadside trash, ranging from building materials to discarded sofas and washing machines. Illegal dumps also encircle the capital Skopje.

Just five kilometres (three miles) northwest of the city centre is awasteland full of bathtubs, textiles, plastic packaging and car parts.

In the Vardarishte area to the east, a once-official landfill that wasclosed 26 years ago is now an illegal dump that stretches some 170,000 squaremetres (42 acres). It sits less than one kilometre away from urbanneighbourhoods.

Fires from the site pump add to Skopje’s smog, sending up toxic fumes aslocals burn objects like cables to extract and sell the copper inside.

“The negative influence of these illegal landfills is huge,” said DejanDimitrovski, a 45-year-old council member in Skopje’s Gazi Baba municipality.

An environmental activist, Dimitrovski helped expose a scandal in 2019after he filmed a company failing to properly treat medical waste —including syringes and vials of blood — before dumping it into Skopje’sofficial landfill.

It is the only landfill in the country to meet the EU’s minimum standards.

In another recent video shown to AFP, he confronted a man who tried to tosslarge of bags of trash outside his car.

It is as if North Macedonia “built ourselves an apartment, but did notbuild a toilet for that apartment”, he said of the country’s inadequate wastemanagement.

The situation is similarly dire in Kosovo, where only half the 1.8 millionpopulation is covered by waste-collection services.

A recent government report found the situation was getting worse, with thenumber of illegal dumps increasing 60 percent from 2017 to 2019.

While waste collection is more extensive in Serbia, one of the region’sfrontrunners seeking EU membership, inadequate sorting makes landfills sitesof danger.

In dumps around the country, “heavy metals and other polluting elements arereleased directly into the environment, water and air and in this way threaten us,” said Igor Jezdimirovic, who leads the Serbian NGO EnvironmentalProtection Engineers.

The main destination of Belgrade’s trash for the past 40 years, the Vincalandfill has gained notoriety as Europe’s largest unmanaged open dump.

Lying on the city’s outskirts, the site is only now being overhauled in aproject financed in part by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Without sustained public pressure, Jezdimirovic expects the authorities tokeep sweeping waste management issues under the rug.

“Those in power only hope that the problems will not surface during theirterms of office and, in the long run, they do not find it in their interest to deal with the issue.”