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“We want a clean city”: why Yerevan is up in arms about waste management

In post-revolutionary Armenia, the monopolies of the past - even over trash - are coming increasingly into question.

Constance Léon
8 October 2019
Waste in Yerevan
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Source: Sergey Ghahramanyan / Facebook

To the south of Yerevan, just before the tourist sites of Erebuni Fortress and the majestic Khor Virap monastery, a trash can overflows with plastic bags and food waste. The country’s main landfill, Nubarashen, isn’t far from here, but it’s been six days since the trash has been removed. Bystanders on their way to the nearby Yerevan mall don’t seem to pay much attention to the prickly smell of waste.

Nevertheless, city residents are paying increasing attention to the crisis in Yerevan’s waste collection services. According to 2017 data from Armenia’s National Statistics Service, one in five people are dissatisfied with waste collection services in the country. Since September 2018, the Armenian capital’s waste management service has been in turmoil - largely following mismanagement by service provider Sanitek Armenia and the municipality of Yerevan, as well as the previous government’s privatisation of the country’s principal landfill. And this standoff between the company and the city authorities has hammered home the lack of effective regulation, such as a national-level authority to monitor waste management and ensure good service is provided.

A few days after I visited the Nubarashen landfill last month, the Yerevan city administration sued Sanitek for not removing waste for six consecutive days, and to withdraw from its contract with the company. Then, on 3 October, city mayor Hayk Marutyan announced he was “entirely and unilaterally” terminating the contract with Sanitek in a public address.

On 10 October, Sanitek International released a statement in which it claimed that “the overriding objective of the city authorities was to damage [Sanitek's] activities by all possible means”, and that the Armenian state “is unable to ensure the exercise of the right to a fair trial by a foreign investor.”

Worst case scenario

“We don't want to sanction the company, we want a clean city,” Gayane Ter-Astvatsatryan tells me. Together with a group of volunteers, Gayane runs a Facebook community devoted to waste mismanagement in Yerevan. She believes that paying a monthly tax of $0.50 per person for waste management is “too much compared to the service provided.”

“The solution is to have another company instead of only Sanitek,” Ter-Astvatsatryan says. “Maybe two or three companies, if one cannot do the job alone.”

Sanitek’s waste monopoly could be considered a legacy of Armenia’s old regime, which was kicked out of power by a street protest movement led by now Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan - the 2018 “Velvet Revolution”. Five years ago, the municipality of Yerevan issued a tender to manage waste collection in all 12 of the city’s districts - a public offer to manage Yerevan’s trash. While former Yerevan mayor Taron Margaryan is now being investigated in an anti-corruption probe, the 2014 tender for individual, industrial as well as private business waste continued - until October 2019.

In December 2014, private Beirut-based company Sanitek International obtained a ten-year monopoly on waste collection and sanitary cleaning for the entirety of Yerevan. Sanitek had been set up four years earlier, and had previously managed local waste management projects in Lebanon, Turkey and Algeria.

Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan cancels the city's contract with Sanitek Armenia, 3 October.

But ever since the waste management agreement was signed, Sanitek Armenia and the municipality of Yerevan have been pointing the finger at one another over contract issues and implementation. Over the past year, the company’s Armenian subsidiary, Sanitek Armenia, has faced two $33,000 fines from the city municipality for “failing to conduct proper garbage disposal”.

By contrast, Sanitek claims the city has caused over $50,000 dollars in damages to Sanitek property. The company believes that the city did not provide adequate conditions, such as a proper road leading to the Nubarashen landfill, and has thus damaged Sanitek waste containers and garbage trucks.

The capital’s waste problems have increasingly become a national issue. In September 2018, following public protests at Sanitek’s Yerevan offices over the mounting waste crisis, Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the situation “unacceptable” in a Facebook livestream. He said the crisis was a “consequence of the waste management monopoly”, and claimed that the issue was tarnishing the image of the “New Armenia”.

Monopoly contracts like the one signed with Sanitek are common in Armenia’s infrastructure sector. For example, French multinational Veolia operates an Armenian subsidiary which holds exclusive rights to water management and distribution. The Armenian company has been criticised for its lack of service and is currently involved in legal proceedings over embezzlement, bribery and over-pricing claims.

“The new government is trying to deal with [the waste problem] in order to improve its image,” says Hrant Mikaelian, a researcher at the Caucasus Institute. Mikaelian points out that Nikol Pashinyan - in an attempt to lower public discontent - set up an official working group on waste and recycling management in October 2018, which he personally leads. Arsen Gasparyan, a senior special advisor to the prime minister, was appointed to coordinate waste management work.

In an interview to openDemocracy in July 2019, Gasparyan insisted that the dead-lock situation between Sanitek and Yerevan municipality “has to change, our people’s demands are very important to us.”

“I met Sanitek to consider including them at the negotiation table of the waste commission,” adds Arsen Gasparyan. “This included government members and waste specialists, but I understand Sanitek has its own agreement with Yerevan municipality over the existing contract.” Gasparyan was dismissed in September this year.

In February 2019, Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC) reported that a criminal investigation against Sanitek International Group was underway. According to the SRC current investigation reports, Sanitek has not paid taxes since September 2018, and owes the Armenian state over one million USD in total.

“The reason to hold a press conference in Tbilisi is that Sanitek is under aggressive administrative pressure”

In July 2019, Sanitek Armenia representatives held a press conference in Yerevan, in order to respond to the SRC investigation. Initially, though, the conference was due to be held in Tbilisi, Georgia. “The reason for the idea to hold a press conference in Tbilisi is that Sanitek is under aggressive administrative pressure” stressed Sanitek CEO Nicholas El Tawil, who called the investigation “illegal, groundless and politically motivated”. El Tawil proposed that the Yerevan municipality work together with Sanitek, including operating the new trucks the municipality had purchased, and offered to invest four million US dollars into new equipment, insisting, in return, that the municipality improve infrastructure at the Nubarashen landfill.

While Sanitek is currently negotiating a renewal of its waste management contract, it has also followed a trend set by other international companies in Armenia, mooting a possible international arbitrage court case against the country.

Working conditions

Sanitek representatives state they currently employ 930 people in Armenia.

But while Sanitek’s minimum monthly salary of $500 is a good wage in Armenia, company employees have raised concerns about pay, precarity and conditions. Sanitek employees recently protested over unpaid wages, and Armenian newspaper Joghovourd reported earlier this year that several Sanitek employees claimed they did not have a contract with the company: “We haven't signed any work contract since we started working for Sanitek - that is, a year and a half ago. It is the same for most Sanitek employees. We are not convinced by the company’s promises to hire.”

There are also concerns about working conditions for Sanitek employees. When I visited the Nubarashen landfill centre in May 2019, one female cleaning agent working for Sanitek agreed to speak anonymously. “I work day or night shifts,” she told me. “At night, it is dangerous with the traffic: we work on the side of the road. My wage is low, with no insurance, but it is better than retirement.”

Speaking to openDemocracy, several Sanitek employees claimed to earn around 100 dollars a month for a 12 hour day - twice as much as the average Armenian pension of 40 dollars, according to Armstat data.

With over 300 unregulated garbage dumps, Armenia’s waste crisis goes beyond Nubarashen

In June 2018, several Sanitek women workers sent a letter to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in which they claimed that they “did not receive their salary as provided in their contracts, could not take annual leave nor the required four days of rest during the month, did not know how much territory they were supposed to clean, and did not receive overtime pay for night work”.

Sanitek stated that it would not comment on information regarding pay and conditions of employees.

Landfill privatisation

“We have to close our windows during the summer because of the waste smell,” Ruzanna tells me. She is one of 100,000 residents who live next to Nubarashen landfill, and prefers not to give her surname. “There have been fires also, I can see them from my apartment. I have no clue what the authorities are doing about it.”

As we speak, hundreds of city residents are picking through plastic on the landfill, with a view to selling material on to private business. Neither the municipality, nor the Clean Erebuni company monitors the situation, and when I contacted the municipality, the press secretary responded: “We are aware of the situation, but we can't do much about it.”

The municipality owns the 52-hectare site, but after privatising it in 2001, it now rents it to a private business, Clean Erebuni. Despite several requests by the author to the municipality, the public tender for this contract was not provided.

But while the tender was not available, openDemocracy did consult the contract between the Yerevan municipality and Clean Erebuni via a Freedom of Information request to the former. Although there is no term limit specified in the contract provided, Clean Erebuni pays roughly $60,000 in monthly rent to Yerevan municipality to operate the landfill. In turn, Sanitek pays a monthly fee to Clean Erebuni, based on how much waste is dumped.

Landfill, Yerevan | Source: FIP - Fact Investigation Platform / YouTube

With 9.5 million tonnes of waste on site, Nubarashen is increasingly considered an environmental risk. Harutyun Alpetyan at the American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment points out that the piles of rubbish have created a river below them. “These waste waters are going directly to the ground waters, which can go everywhere,” insists Alpetyan. Sofia Manukyan, another researcher at the centre, points out a more flagrant risk of the waste generating chemical reactions, which “could produce uncontrolled fires”. Yet the contract between Yerevan Municipality and Clean Erebuni does not cover environmental risks. According to Artak Ayvazyan, head of the Clean Erebuni company, the company regularly “covers the waste with soil to bury it.”

According to a 2010 UN Convention to Combat Desertification report, the total annual cost of land degradation in Armenia is estimated at $71 million. This degradation leads to the “deterioration in food availability, soil fertility, carbon sequestration capacity, wood production, groundwater recharge”, and has a “significant social and economic costs to the country”. No study has been featured on the impact of waste on public health in Armenia.

With over 300 unregulated garbage dumps, Armenia’s waste crisis goes beyond Nubarashen. There are no proper waste management policies that comply with strict environmental standards. Waste is not sorted, though there are separate areas designed for construction, medical, radioactive and mining waste. Solid household waste is considered typical of urban landfill sites in Armenia.

New expansions

While the Nubarashen landfill increasingly looks like a danger to public health, the Yerevan authorities are planning on redeveloping the site.

In 2015, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Yerevan Municipality signed an $8.7m loan contract, plus additional financing from the European Investment Bank and EU Neighborhood Investment Facility, for the Yerevan Solid Waste project.

The loan aims at providing a new “EU criteria compliant landfill” for the Armenian capital. The new landfill will be constructed next to the existing site at Nubarashen, in order to eventually close the latter. Yet the same document states that these expectations will have to be limited to a new landfill since “EU requirements related to waste sorting and recycling cannot be applied at the level of the project and this is considered to be outside the influence of the project under consideration”.

The 2005 contract between Yerevan municipality and Clean Erebuni on Nubarashen landfill does not specify any closing date. According to an information request to Yerevan municipality, no public tender was published for the Yerevan Solid Waste project, nor was the tender to privatise Nubarashen landfill.

“Recycling helps people reduce their consumption at an individual level, but a recycling tax should be implemented for private companies. They are the ones who pollute the most.”

The total cost of the new landfill project is more than $25m, and will include a treatment facility and a liner layer, which Harutyun Alpetyan points out is the minimum EU standard. But this project has also come in for criticism from civil society. “Why is this new landfill costing so much? No recycling waste management is considered. There is no long term vision in this project. It doesn’t respect EU norms. We cannot think of an appropriate waste management policy in these conditions,” comments Inga Zarafyan, head of environmental NGO Ecolur. In response, EBRD’s Armenian representative Nora Martirosyan insists that the new landfill at Nubarashen will have a “huge positive environmental impact”.

While the new landfill project has been validated by both European institutions and Yerevan municipality, the site in question is, in fact, covered in trees. Indeed, researcher Sofia Manukyan points out that the Armenian state previously spent approximately $125,000 on planting trees and setting up irrigation systems at the proposed site, although, in the end, the project did not reach its objectives. Speaking in April this year, EBRD representative Anna Malikoyan stated that the proposed landfill site is not a forest under Armenian law: only an area where at least 30% of the land is occupied with foliage of trees is considered forest.

Across the world, waste management systems are increasingly privatised - and on a national level, this blocks the possibility of finding solutions to problems left over from corrupt regimes, as in Armenia. For Sofia Manukyan, the situation in Armenia is doubly complex due to “inherited deals with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Financial Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the financial obligations attached. They greatly complicate solving many waste issues today.”

Meanwhile, there’s little sign of action being taken to address Armenia’s waste problems at the national level, although, as Arsen Gasparyan points out, there are programmes introducing recycling bins in institutions and education projects for young people. UNDP Armenia and AUA Acopian Center for the Environment recently launched a study on waste composition and management, and the results, Gasparyan says, should allow the authorities to publish a new tender to “attract private investors to the recycling market”.

These private investors could squeeze the country’s increasing number of small recycling business. For instance, the Ecowaste NGO, run by Hripsimé Mkrtchyan, runs a network of 1,000 volunteers to sort out plastic, paper and metal waste in several Yerevan neighborhoods.

“The recycling technology is expansive and we are a small market to invest in,” the 28-year-old physicist tells me. “Recycling helps people reduce their consumption at an individual level, but a recycling tax should be implemented for private companies. They are the ones who pollute the most.”

Note from the editors (10/10/2019): This article was updated to reflect Sanitek International's response to contract termination, released on 10 October.

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