Garbage, Garbage everywhere—Armenians confront litterbugs

Photographer: Hakob Margaryan

Author: Nelli Lazaryan

All Hakob Mikoyan wanted for his 37th birthday was trash.

He asked friends and strangers to pick up a bag of trash and post it on Facebook, a tribute to his fight against litter in Armenia.

For Mikoyan, the garbage photos that flooded his profile page were worth more than any traditional gift or card—they were a sign his anti-litter initiative was taking off.

Mikoyan started his campaign in October, in his home town of Vanadzor, a small city about 130 kilometers north of capital Yerevan. He was inspired by a campaign to pick up trash in Estonia.

 “I have slightly changed the context of the idea, focusing not on cleaning it but on littering. We shame those who litter, those who accept [the problem]. I keep repeating that it's not a shame to pick garbage off the ground; it's a shame to live in garbage,” Mikoyan says.

Litter is a major problem in Armenia. A 2018 study commissioned by the World Bank found the country has the sixth highest volume of waste per capita in the world, in large part due to industrial waste.

The Nubarashen municipal landfill is the largest landfill in Armenia, holding at least 10 million tonnes of garbage over an area of 52 hectares.

A new sanitary landfill is under construction near the existing Nubarashen landfill. A loan agreement has been signed between the Armenian Government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Most of the household waste--300,000 tonnes a year--is stored right here. And waste that goes into the landfill is not processed.

Municipal waste—the trash produced by citizens—is also a problem. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has made dealing with waste a priority. The government recently created a working group tasked with establishing an effective system of waste collection, transportation, sorting and recycling throughout the country.

Pashinyan has noted, however, that the most important change has to come from Armenian citizens.

“Unfortunately, our country is covered with garbage and our country is buried under garbage. There is an atmosphere of resignation, which needs to be reversed,” he said in a December 2019 speech.

“We have to declare war on garbage in Armenia. I do not mean that it will be a blitzkrieg, but at least we should adopt a line of intolerance to garbage at a personal level.”

Activist Mikoyan’s initiative focuses on the personal level—he and his supporters call out people for littering, and try to convince them to change their habits.

He says people respond in different ways: while some take the rebuke as an insult and try to cause trouble, others apologize. There have been some cases when a person has gone from a litterbug to an anti-litter advocate.  

“Once, when we reprimanded a MP for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground, he apologized, picked it up off the ground and dropped into the trash bin. After that, he became one of the active participants in the fight against garbage," Mikoyan says.

Over the past five months, Mikoyan’s initiative has gained popularity in his hometown and in Yerevan. About 55 activities have been held by a variety of supporters, including actors, students, public officials and members of parliament.  

The former deputy governor of Armenia’s south-eastern province of Vayots Dzor, Razmik Tonoyan, ran the Clean Armenia program when he was in office from July 2018 to July 2019.

As a result of the program, Vayots Dzor was recognized as the cleanest province in Armenia twice. “I have partially solved the garbage problem in the region because first the community leaders were doing their daily work and then we were focusing on the citizen's legal consciousness. Compared to residents in other provinces, residents of Vayots Dzor know where garbage should be put," he says.

In Yerevan, Eco Waste, a local NGO, has also had success at introducing recycling and better waste disposal at a grassroots level.

Eco Waste President Hripsime Mkrtchyan says they sort garbage from ordinary citizens from Yerevan and nearby regions. The NGO also works with local processing plants that turn the recycled waste, like plastic, into products that they sell on the local market.

The NGO visits yards and neighborhoods, collecting paper, plastic, polyethylene and glass from residents. They then deliver the waste to recycling companies.

Eco Waste NGO has been collecting and sorting garbage for about two years.

So far, the initiative has saved 2267 trees--just because people have started sorting their garbage.

“There are factories for plastic that convert different plastic items into hangers, buckets, vases, which cost 30-40 percent cheaper than the same imported products. There are more than 10 paper factories that produce not only cardboard boxes but also toilet paper. We also have polyethylene recycling factories, from which we get garbage bags and they cost a lot less than imported ones,” she says.

She adds that public interest in recycling is growing every day: the NGO estimates that around 20,000 people are engaged in their work, including an estimated 400-500 families as well as other organizations and stakeholders.

There are more than 30 garbage processing plants in Armenia that work with paper, glass and plastic.

This giant recycling plant works with broken glass and bottles collected from a landfill.

The factory manufactures bottles from glass scraps, which it buys for a negligible fee.

More and more citizens are learning that glass and plastic and paper do not belong in the landfill.

The recycling process in Armenia is just beginning to improve.

Ordinary glass bottles need more than a thousand years to decay. If they are not recycled, our planet will soon be filled with trash.

The glass products they make are sold domestically and exported abroad.

The glass factory in Armenia has been operating since the 1990s, producing different kinds of souvenirs and brandy bottles.

Eco Waste focuses on educating people about the environmental cost of waste. “For example, we say that every 58 kg of paper is equal to one 11-meter tree, which is to say that by using less paper, the trees are saved. So far, the initiative has saved 1,500 trees, and only because people have started sorting their garbage,” Mkrtchyan says.

She notes that the city of Yerevan plans to install publicly accessible sorting bins for trash, so it is easier for residents to recycle.  "Very soon we will have proper waste sorting bins in the city and the amount of garbage will definitely decrease," she says.

The government has also passed fines for littering, especially for drivers: 1854 drivers were fined in 2019, according to the police.

MP Gevorg Papoyan, a member of the ruling "My step" faction has also drafted a law on waste disposal. The draft law would oblige property owners to clear and dispose of all waste before selling their property.

But MP Gevorg Papoyan notes that while fines and laws are important, the biggest change has to come from society itself.

“The right way is to change the culture, to improve the education system. Legally, of course, we need to address that, but the most important issue is civil consciousness,” he says.

“No one will punish us in our house if we suddenly decide to throw garbage on the floor, but we don't do that. If a citizen realizes that the yard and the street are his or her own, we will all start caring for our city, our state.”





Chai-khana Survay