Ljubljana: Zeroing in on waste

Ljubljana has become the first capital in the EU to adopt a zero waste goal, but sending zero waste to landfill requires a lot of work and education. Edward Perchard finds out how the city aims to reduce waste arisings

In September 2014, Zoran Janković, the Mayor of Ljubljana, flanked by the President of Zero Waste Europe, Rossano Ercolini, and Mayor of nearby Vrhnika, Stojan Jakin, announced that the Slovenian capital would become the first in the European Union to adopt a ‘zero waste goal’. In so doing, it officially ruled out building an incinerator, instead focusing on reduction, reuse and recycling.

With the announcement, shared with three other Slovenian municipalities, came a commitment to increase the separate collection of waste to 78 per cent by 2025. However, despite the mayor committing to a ‘zero waste [to landfill] goal’, its first target is to decrease residual waste levels to 60 kilogrammes (kg) per person per year by 2025. 

These lofty ambitions are not without foundation. Janković claims that the city’s residents separate 60 per cent of their waste already – a figure that Zero Waste Europe suggests is the high watermark among EU capitals, while EU figures state that less than 150kg of residual waste is created annually per resident.

And Ljubljana, named the European Green capital for 2016, is a standard bearer for the zero waste movement in Slovenia, which boasts recycling rates equivalent to more economically-developed nations such as the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark.

But how has a nation, which until 2001 had no waste targets to speak of and in 2010 reported a relatively paltry municipal waste recycling rate of 22 per cent, made such progress so quickly (the last recorded rate, from 2013, showed a nationwide rate of 42 per cent)?

Worldwide feature: Ljubljana

Jože Gregorič from Snaga, the company that carries out waste management for Ljubljana and the nine surrounding municipalities, says that the results come from a decade of hard work: “Residents have adopted the habit of collecting waste separately, but it hadn’t been that way until five or 10 years ago. We have been developing our waste management system and educating residents for at least 10 years, and finally the results are here.”

Snaga’s service reaches all 361,000 residents of the area, with a door-to-door service collecting separate bins for organic waste, packaging waste, and residual waste. Those in the centre of Ljubljana have separate household bins for paper and cartons, as well as over 44 communal underground collection units in the city centre (with more planned).

A consistent message to residents has helped them to utilise these services to their potential, but the new zero waste goal means that there is more to be done. A new waste management centre (RCERO Ljubljana) is currently being built, which Gregorič says “will be one of the biggest of its kind in Europe”. Once it opens fully in the autumn of 2016, it will receive the waste of around 700,000 residents (a third of the Slovenian population). It is hoped that this facility will help realise the city’s goal of sending less than 20 per cent of waste to landfill.

Focus has also moved to limiting waste generation, which is reflected in the new communications campaigns that Snaga is promoting. Gregorič explains: “Zero waste basically means zero waste for landfill sites and incineration plants (Ljubljana was the only finalist for the 2016 Green Capital award without an incineration plant), and boosts prevention of waste production and the promotion of reuse and recycling.

“This concept creates new green jobs and provides a source of raw materials for reuse in a circular economy. We hope that Slovenia becomes the first country with this concept and the process of adoption of zero waste continues and spreads among other municipalities.”

In the last few years, several initiatives have been launched to spread the word of zero waste. ‘Get used to reuse’ is “a socially responsible initiative, the aim of which is to encourage reusing as well as responsible consumerism with respect to ourselves, the environment and our wallets”. Snaga aims to change the values and behaviour of the city’s residents, reducing food waste and preventing reusable goods from being thrown away. It has produced a video manifesto, posters, stickers, events, workshops and even ‘reused’ a single by Slovenian singer Oto Pestner – ‘Letiva’ (‘Let’s Fly’) – long forgotten since its 1978 release, only for it to be nominated for Slovenia’s Best Song of 2013.

According to Gregorič, results are already identifiable: “The share of still-useful things that end up in waste bins is steadily decreasing, and the awareness for responsible consumerism is rising, as demonstrated by opinion polls and surveys.”

Worldwide feature: Ljubljana

Indeed, Ljubljana’s RE-use Centre, which repairs and sells secondhand items, has seen a steady growth in use, with over 100 reusable items bought each day. In the autumn of 2014, Snaga took the initiative nationwide, creating the ‘Together for a better society’ campaign alongside the Chamber of Local Public Economy (CLPE).

“Together, public companies want to encourage Slovenes to reduce the amount of food waste”, Gregorič explains, “to think critically about purchasing intentions, drink tap water instead of bottled, buy more things secondhand or borrow them and so on.” 

According to a 2013 EU report, ‘Technology options for feeding 10 billion people’, the average Slovenian resident produces 72kg of food waste every year, already the lowest in the EU (compared to 236kg in the UK), but Snaga and the CLPE feel more can be done.

As part of the 2014 European Week for Waste Reduction, practical demonstrations were held in 15 Slovenian cities with installations placed outside public buildings showing how much food is wasted annually. There’s a great interest, says Gregorič, in the issue. Newspapers, documentaries, news channels and radio stations have all been keen to report on the campaign.

And in Ljubljana, Snaga has a food waste-specific initiative of it own, ‘Raise your voice against food waste’, focused on excessive consumption in the more affluent sections of society. The campaign aims to change “the irreverent attitude towards food into a more respectful one”.

Again, Snaga has aimed to be creative in getting its message across. Alongside activities and workshops for school children and collaboration with the media, a protest of bins brandishing placards and banners filled the capital’s central market, and Slovenia pop star Pestner has even recorded a blues song for Snaga, ‘Kanta [Dustbin] Blues’ (see video below), which details how a dustbin feels when people throw food away.

There’s more to it than simple publicity, as Gregorič explains: “Our communication programme is based on tools and activities, enabling citizens to quickly and rapidly obtain information, learn about the philosophy of waste prevention and reuse, incorporate it into their lifestyle and be proactive in providing feedback.

This article was taken from Issue 81

“Our goal is to contribute in the development of a more sustainable, critical, and responsible society; therefore, our activities are based on communication, storytelling, and the promotion of responsible consumption choices.”

So with the great progress that Ljubljana and Slovenia have made in the past decade, has the attitude been permanently changed? “Changing consumption patterns is a lengthy process that needs constant highlighting”, Gregorič explains, adding that several activities “to promote ethical and critical consumption and more respectful attitudes towards food” are in the pipeline.

And waste provisions are moving with the changing attitudes: “In the next year, Snaga is preparing a project of ‘mini collection centres’, where citizens will be able to bring reusable items alongside their waste, and ‘big collection centres’, where we will collect items that are suitable for reuse.

“We are also considering changing ecological collection sites, for example, by upgrading them with containers for textiles and smaller electrical and electronic equipment.”

Ljubljana is moving quickly in the right direction, but with Janković’s Zero Waste commitment still fresh, and the 2025 deadline for its targets getting ever closer, the city’s waste movement, Gregorič insists, is not done yet. 

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