Zero Waste Kharkiv: from sorting to reusing

Recycling waste is not enough, the Zero Waste Kharkiv team is convinced. We need to reduce consumption and reuse old things. And what’s more, we need to stop calling waste “waste” –it’s recyclable. Anna Prokayeva, the leader of Zero Waste Kharkiv NGO, explains the concepts.

“I remember coordinating the largest ever clean-up campaign in Kharkiv Oblast,” says Anna Prokayeva, the leader of the Zero Waste Kharkiv NGO.

Anna Prokayeva

“It all went with a bang and involved a great number of people. And then I was shocked to learn that the recyclables that we had so carefully collected and sorted ended up in a landfill. That is, all our work had been ‘wasted.’ So it was then that I thought that things have to be done differently.”

Prokayeva refers to the experience of Estonia where such clean-up campaigns were held for several years in a row, until it became unnecessary, as there was simply no more garbage. Unlike in Estonia, in Ukraine there will be a long-lasting need to clean up if nothing is done about the culture of consumption:

“We have to treat the root cause rather than symptoms.”

The ecologist is convinced that to convince people to act differently, it is necessary to change their attitude to recyclables. In particular, to polyethylene. In this respect, storytelling may come in useful. Anna came up with a narrative about a bag, which gave rise to a full-fledged campaign in Kharkiv.

“It was a story about a small bag that was born as it was torn off in a supermarket,” Prokayeva says of the start of the campaign “Shelter the bag.”

The bag believed that it would live long and happily from then on in the family that put fruit and vegetables into it and went home. But after it was used it was quickly disposed of. So it flies around the city, clings to the shoes of passers-by, to tree branches, breaks away again and feels useless. Small and unhappy, it has failed in life, and therefore needs to find shelter.

Photo: Kharkiv Zero Waste

This story resonated with the public. As Anna and her colleagues set out to collect polyethylene and other recyclables, more and more people brought waste and thus joined the “Shelter the bag” campaign. However, within only a year of operations of the mobile collection point, the partners who provided transport changed 13 times. It was very exhausting, and the ecologist decided that it was time to launch a permanent collection point for collecting recyclables. This was the beginning of the first eco-hub in Kharkiv.

More than a sorting station

Prokayeva studied the experience of waste management in the European Union, seeking to replicate it in Kharkiv. “My dream was to make the best model based on everything useful I’ve seen in the EU. It should be not only a sorting station but rather a centre for exchanging things.”

“In Germany, for example, there are sharing centres where some people bring clothes and others take them away. However, it turned out that it was quite difficult to do the same here.

Photo: Kharkiv Zero Waste

According to Anna, it is generally believed In Ukraine that second-hand things are acceptable only when one cannot afford to buy new things. Therefore, middle-class visitors to the eco-hub need to be convinced that taking a second-hand thing is not an issue of poverty, but environmental awareness.

“We explain it to them: if you take this and reuse it now, then there will be less oil or water consumed somewhere else. You will not contribute to the potential demand for environmental pollution.”

With such arguments, we slowly bring them over to our side,” Anna smiles.

In addition, the eco-hub was later supplemented with a food bank where you can leave unused food and household items, such as a pack of coffee or a bottle of shampoo. What has already become unnecessary for some will come in handy for others. Anna started delivering such things from the food bank to the elderly and realized that this initiative had an effect not only on waste management:

“You can personally watch people become more trusting in each other. They start exchanging things between neighbours or sorting waste together.”

“The first eco-hub has grown into a true network: three stations in Kharkiv and one in the oblast, namely in the city of Liubotyn,” says Anna. “However, with the later things did not start off as expected. People were unimpressed. They asked if it was second-hand or something. We understood that we should have been sensitizing people at least six months before opening in order to explain what it was all about.

The eco-hub in Liubotyn was closed, and instead, Zero Waste Kharkiv is going to implement the Liubotyn Zero Waste project. The team will conduct training for local environmentalists and officials so that the city can manage its waste on its own.

The right words

One of the most important principles of Zero Waste Kharkiv is not to use the word “waste.” When a person hears it, they imagine a trash can and a landfill. Instead, when they hear “recyclables” they understand that these can have some value. But here, too, there are some ins and outs. The ecologist recalls the reaction they faced as they limited the taking-in of single-use bags in eco-hubs. This caused great indignation among the people: “How come? They can be recycled!” Then the team reconsidered the issue and decided not to use the title of “recycling campaign.” It is no longer a question of recycling but rather of abandoning the use of everything that is disposable and harmful to the environment.

Zero Waste Kharkiv believes that educating adults is unnecessary. They can find and check all the required information on their own. Changing behaviour is another thing. To this end, one has to expose the full context, explain the whole chain from before, during and after disposal.

Imagine that you have sent a plastic bottle for recycling. It was converted into granules and made into polyester fibres for pillow stuffing. And what’s next? You buy a pillow stuffed with this material, use it for several years, and throw it away. It ends up in a landfill and is not recycled. This example shows that recycling is not a cure-all solution,” says Anna.

Community and cooperation

Now Zero Waste Kharkiv is going to combine all of its eco-hubs into one. Prokayeva’s dream will be fully implemented in a new space of 350 square meters. There will be a sorting station, reuse laboratory (exchanging stocks of used items), a food bank, co-working space, and lecture halls.

“Thus we plan to form a community that is primarily focused on preventing the use and then abandonment of everything that is disposable,” says the head of the organization.

To create this community, the team is working with the government, the public, and business. For instance, currently, they help with an HR forum for 500 people. In particular, they provide expertise on how to make it as environmentally friendly as possible.

We dissuade them from using bioplastics. It does not make any sense unless it goes straight to the composting station. Meanwhile, the latter is currently available only in Lviv. We’re also abandoning the so-called biological oxo bags that are said to decompose in three years. Yes, indeed they decompose, but into microplastics which will also contaminate the soil, and then our bodies. Therefore, we must work to refute these myths. It seems to me that nowadays media literacy and eco-literacy are very important for everyone.”

By Yulia Hudoshnyk, for UNDP

The United Nations Development Program is implementing the Smart Plastic Waste Management project at the local level with the financial support of a joint New World Program of The Coca-Cola Foundation and the Global Water Challenge. The project aims to minimize the negative impact and risks to the environment and human health through promoting sustainable consumption, disposal and plastic waste management practices at the local level.

We partner with people at all levels of society to drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves quality of life for everyone.