We have to regulate the waste management system first and foremost because of the environment we live in. However, no country has managed to do something like that overnight. This year, after going back and forth, we will create prerequisites for an effective and sustainable waste management system in the future. The Fund is a crucial institution in the implementation of environmental and energy efficiency strategies and plans, and it runs the entire management system of special categories of waste. All of this is a demanding endeavour, but the Fund has financial and professional resources to make it work – says Dubravko Ponoš, Director of the Environmental Protection and Energy Efficiency Fund.
You have a lot of work ahead of you. What are your plans, what still needs to be done and what has been done in the segments of waste disposal, energy efficiency and waste management?
With the transition from national to EU co-financing, the Fund also acquired a new role – we help applicants to better prepare documentation for public calls. Given the fact that more than 95% of the projects that were prepared with our professional assistance were approved, we have also positioned ourselves as an institution that is a crucial link in the successful utilization of EU funds. In this and next year, our priority will be the co-financing of municipal waste disposal facilities, and implementing projects that result in preventing and mitigating climate change. We are also going to stimulate cleaner transport and greater use of renewable energy sources. In short, we will continue to finance the already contracted projects, but we will also develop new ones, all with the aim of making the Fund’s financial assistance more accessible to the widest range of users.
2. As an EU member, Croatia has the right and the opportunity to use the money from funds allocated to the areas you are dealing with. How much money is available from EU funds, how much have you withdrawn so far and what difficulties have you encountered when withdrawing these funds?
The scope of our activities primarily relates to environmental protection and energy efficiency, and further to specific objectives and priority axes defined by the Operational Programme “Competitiveness and Cohesion”. We are extremely successful in energy recovery projects in the construction industry. We have 525 million kunas available for energy recovery in multi-storey buildings. This amount has already been allocated for energy recovery in close to 600 multi-storey buildings. For reconstruction of educational institutions, We have contracted about 220 projects for energy recovery in educational institutions, and are eligible to receive 420 million kunas of EU subsidies for this purpose. The competition for energy recovery in public buildings is temporarily closed because the value of the submitted projects is twice higher than the planned allocations.
In terms of waste management projects, and despite the fact that we have 470 million kunas available for this purpose, there weren’t many concrete public calls in the past few years, so the funds could not be used. However, the developments in this segment have been expedited and we have public calls for landfill remodeling, construction of recycling yards, and implementation of educational programmes in waste management. Soon, the Fund will be involved in the acquisition of separate waste collection bins that will be co-financed from the EU funds. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has been also working on other public calls in order to finalize the waste management system. We should also mention the energy efficiency public calls specifically for industry and tourism.
All contracted EU projects undergo a detail check and they go through several levels of control, starting with our Fund’s Level 2 Mediation Body, then national resourcing institutions and finally, the European Commission auditors. Hence, the documentation has to be neat and complete, and the procurement of goods and services legal and transparent. We insist on high quality of the performed work.
3. In the last few years, there have been heated arguments about the ways in which waste management problem should be resolved, i.e. should we thermically process the waste or recycle it as much as possible. What is Croatia’s official stance on the recycling format?
The topic of waste is more of a problem for political rather than professional circles which resulted in us going back and forth in terms of choosing the best possible waste management concept. We even changed the concepts compared to what was stated in our Operational Programme. Speaking about optimal concepts, extreme solutions are not good, at least not in my opinion. Firstly, one should really look at the situation in the field, and assess the existing capacities and the ability to invest in the required infrastructure. On top of this, there is the mentality and habits of our citizens that will not change overnight. Finally, with the appointment of Minister Ćorić, we now have a clear stance and direction after constantly changing plans for a couple of years. We are building the system at the greatest level possible in order to prevent waste generation, and to facilitate separate collection and exploitation of valuable properties of waste. However, we have to handle the waste that is left behind and cannot be used anymore in accordance with the relevant environmental standards, and this is where waste management centres play an important role.
4. In Croatia, only 17% percent of municipal waste is currently recycled, and the country is obliged to increase this percentage to 65 in the next four years. How do you intend to do this considering the difficulties you have experienced so far?
Through the line ministry and our Fund, the government will try to create an incentivized environment through utilization of EU funds for waste management projects. I do hope that our mayors and municipal heads will use the available financial opportunities to advance their utility services. We are working hard on parallel implementation of all activities – on one hand, we are cleaning and closing the existing landfills, building transfer and recycling yards, and setting up project centres while, on the other hand, the whole system cannot survive without the continuous education and engagement of all our citizens. That is why we have launched a national campaign, and soon we are going to launch local campaigns for which cities have secured EU funds. Additionally, the state provides the framework and provides funds, but the local government and their public utility companies also need to make the system operational in practice and make it accessible and affordable to their citizens.
5. What consequences could the country suffer from if it does not fulfill its obligations in terms of waste disposal and management?
We want to create a well-regulated system where everyone will have to be held accountable and implement the European Commission’s waste management guidelines. True, in the past we were not sure of ourselves, changed the concepts too much and hence lost time. But I hope, given the seriousness that this Government applies in dealing with this problem, that we will not be penalized by the EU institutions and that we will enter into the monitoring period during which our will and the invested effort, seriousness and money will be honoured.
6. According to the data collated by the Ministry of Environment and Energy, in the last ten years, close to 5-billion-kuna worth of raw materials ended up at landfills. Some of them were discarded and some imported by companies. What does your data show? What could Croatian economy do in order to seriously tackle this problem, both in economic terms and in the number of new jobs?
Unselective disposal of municipal waste that usually ends up at landfills is surely the most expensive available option. On one hand, the money that could be generated from selling useful raw materials is wasted. These raw materials can be further used in industry to manufacture new products that will continue to be sold on the market and provide profit and new jobs. On the other hand, due to the accumulation of rubbish on landfills, the state and local governments have to come up with funds for their quite expensive remediation, which over time becomes a major problem both for the environment and the budgets of cities and municipalities. So far, the Fund has invested over 800 million kunas in the rehabilitation of 299 official waste disposal sites, of which 193 have been fully remediated. Significant funds have also been invested by local self-government units in projects worth over 3 billion kunas. These are huge resources, which, in the past, could have been invested in much more cost-effective projects if only the waste management policies were more responsible and more rational.
But if we analyze the performance of the system of special categories of waste, I can say that we are doing a great job, especially in terms of collecting and recovering plastic and glass bottles, cans, tires, and electric and electronic waste, for example. Companies involved in the processing of this waste generate high quality raw materials to be used for manufacturing of new products and are very competitive in both Croatian and European markets. Close to 700 companies with more than 8,500 employees were registered in the plastic and rubber processing business with the Croatian Chamber of Commerce. They generate the highest revenue from exports, which certainly demonstrates that investing in waste is a very profitable business.
6. Do you think that the existing capacities, on which a lot of money was spent in the past, are capable of dealing with the challenges that arise from countries having to adhere to the European rules, or do we need to invest in new capacities?
As I have underlined earlier, Croatia has available capacities and a lot of potential to utilize new business opportunties and investments in secondary raw material market. The European Commission has recently presented its strategy for plastics in order to boost efforts towards better and more sustainable production, use and recycling of plastics. All segments are striving to move towards a circular and resource-efficient economy. The key to success is the innovation that needs to be fostered with funds available from various European programmes and funds, in addition to national funds. The EU has announced that financial support for innovation would be increased.
7. Because Croatian citizens now get 0.5 kuna as recycling deposit, they are returning almost 90% of beverage packaging which is an excellent result. Are they sufficiently informed and interested in being involved in the recycling process and how much more should be done?
In the beginning, this recycling deposit of 0.5 kuna for every returned plastic or glass bottle or a can was very stimulating for our citizens. But it seems to me that, regardless of this financial incentive which is not negligible, over the years our citizens have developed a habit of returning beverage packaging. They have become aware that this bottle they are returning is worth something and that it damages the environment. Some of the neighbouring countries have expressed interest in implementing the same or similar deposit format, so we often have foreign delegations coming here to see how our system is functioning. Still, our system requires certain improvements, especially in regard to automation of packaging collection in shops and better overall computerization. This would result in lower costs, and will probably lead to lower fees for companies too.