· Published in Cities versus multinationals

From Public Refuse to Private Profits. Does Belgrade really need a costly, corporate-built incinerator?

For over 50 years, one of the largest open air landfills in Europe has been poisoning the soil and air of Belgrade suburbs. French water and waste management giant Suez has signed a major contract with the leaders of the Serbian capital to build a waste-to-energy incinerator. Many fear that the privatisation of municipal waste management will harm the city and its inhabitants, both financially and ecologically.

Although the site is 700 kilometres from the coast, a host of seagulls darkens the sky. Among the crop-lined hills, a few hundred metres from the Danube, one of Europe’s largest open air waste landfills occupies a valley in the suburbs of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. For half a century, municipal services have been piling up the city’s domestic garbage – more than 500,000 tons of it every year. The refuse eventually built up into a nauseating 40-metre-high hill of plastic, smashed furniture, scrap metal and organic waste. A succession of refuse trucks from Gradoscka čistoća, the municipal company in charge of the landfill, come to discharge the day’s load. Digger trucks push the garbage towards the sides of the urban excrescence, which is surrounded by a blackish stream, reminiscent of a medieval castle’s moat. All around, thousands of plastic bags hang on the branches of trees.

“For 50 years, nobody has done anything to improve the situation in Vinca. This is a total ecological disaster... Every six months, methane pockets trigger landfill fires,” Dragan Đjilas laments. As former mayor of Belgrade (2008-2013), he is the leader of the opposition to conservative president Aleksandar Vučić. When he was mayor, he had plans to build a municipal waste incinerator, but it came to nothing due to lack of financial support from private donors. It turns out that there will be an incinerator after all, but it will carry the French flag. In September 2019, French multinational Suez, leader of the international consortium Beo Clean Energy Lim- ited, signed a €300m contract with the city of Belgrade to build the incinerator, a stone’s throw from the landfill. “I’m afraid it won’t solve the problems with Vinca. Suez will only burn new garbage from Belgrade. The old refuse will continue to slowly rot, and pollute the soil and the Danube,” says the former mayor, sipping a glass of Coke in the offices of the Alliance for Serbia, a left-right coalition of political parties opposed to President Vučić’s neoliberal and clientelist policies.

The French water and waste giant has promised to generate biogas from the existing landfill and electricity using the new incinerator, which is supposed to burn 43 tons of waste per hour, turning it into 103MW. The city council has claimed political victory, as it gets set to close one of Europe’s biggest landfills while “developing a cutting-edge waste-management system,” as deputy mayor Goran Vesić calls it. Suez, on the other hand, has secured a stable revenue for 25 years, while claiming to have solved Vinca’s environmental problem.

A €1.6bn bill

The political victory may yet prove very costly for the citizens of Belgrade. Suez is intent on getting the best return from its investment (several hundred million euros) in Vinca. The city has committed to paying the company almost €1.6bn over 25 years, until 2043, for the future incinerator, an astronomical amount in a country with a GDP of €40bn.

“It is us, the citizens, that are going to pay. The waste collection and management fees will increase. These public-private partnerships that put the private interests of foreign companies above the collective good have become the norm in Belgrade, and as a result living costs are steadily increasing,” says Aleksa Petkovic, spokesperson for the citizen group Ne Davimo Beograd (“Let us not sell Belgrade”). On the wall of his office hangs a picture of a giant duck floating on the Danube, the symbol of the movement he has belonged to since the major protests against the Belgrade Waterfront, an Emirates-funded real estate project on both banks of the river, in 2016. Since then, Ne Davimo Beograd has moved on to opposing other corporate-led urban projects, including the future Vinca incinerator.

“This kind of partnership is extremely controversial because it creates huge debt for local authorities over many years,” says Pippa Gallop from NGO Bankwatch, specialised in monitoring international financial institutions in Eastern Europe. “Yet they are aggressively promoted by the European Reconstruction and Development Bank and by the International Financial Corporation [IFC, a World Bank subsidiary].”

In Vinca, layers of plastic have accumulated in the soil. Across the country, unofficial rubbish tips have multiplied, waste sorting and recycling is almost inexistent, and the collection system is often lacking. All of Belgrade’s refuse ends up in Vinca, the city’s only landfill, to be picked at by seagulls. The city has never invested in waste management. The small amount of recycling that exists is is carried out by a few private companies reclaiming electronic waste or informal waste-pickers, mostly Rom people in very insecure situations. Dragan Đjilas’s initial incinerator project involved not only generating electricity for the city’s needs, but would also provide employment to waste-pickers. “The €1.6bn that will be paid to Suez is seven times more than my old project. We had two options: either invest €300m out of our own pocket to produce our own electricity, or pay more than €1bn to a foreign corporation, while being forced to purchase electricity above market price. Guess what we chose...”

From plastics to green energy

Over the next 25 years, the city council has committed to purchasing electricity generated by the Suez incinerator at twice the market price, according to the first version of the contract made public by Transparency Serbia. “These kinds of high prices are hardly going to stop people using coal to heat their homes,” says Aleksa Petkovic. The subsidies that the city council is providing to Suez for “renewable energy” production have increased residents’ energy bills by a few cents per kWh. The difference might seem marginal if Serbia was not a country where the average salary is no more than €300 a month.

The “green energy” label is highly questionable. It is actually inconsistent with European legislation, which Serbia has partly integrated into its national law in view of a future accession to the European Union. A recent report by Bankwatch on the legal irregularities of the contract between Belgrade and Beo Clean Energy Limited has highlighted that the agreement on the price of electricity contradicts EU rules, which do not recognise the electricity generated from burning plastic as “renewable”. By burning 340,000 tons of plastic a year, the city also risks jeopardising the country’s objective to recycle 50% of municipal waste by 2030, still in view of adhering to EU legislation.

The green varnish on Suez’ incinerator does not hold that well. “At the tender, none of the companies proposed any solution for developing waste sorting and recycling,” recalls Pippa Gallop.

Only a few bundles of plastic in Vinca testify to a beginning of recycling efforts. In the land-fill, this is the job relegated to the gipsy community. Working in very precarious conditions and without protection, scrap workers wait until the trucks of Gradoscka čistoća have finished unloading their trucks before checking what can be recovered: metal scraps, concrete slabs, furniture, broken household appliances... They load everything they can onto their old cars, or sometimes their old Yugo trucks, and head to the neighbouring village, where their warehouses are located. There, they cut up the metal in order to sell off the pieces and retrieve spare parts from electronic devices.

Thousands of people live from informal waste-picking in the area. The public company Gradoscka čistoća has granted permits to some of them to work in the landfill. Unable to create a waste processing and recycling system of its own, the city council has opted to outsource some of the work to vulnerable populations who slowly poison themselves by collecting plastic and selling it for thirty cents for three kilos. The blatant failure of Belgrade’s public waste management is reflected in the rest of the country: only 5% of refuse is processed and recycled. And yet in former Yugoslavia, Slovenia has managed to become a European waste champion without having to turn to the private sector. Each year, the public processing centre of Ljubljana, the country’s capital, turns 166,600 tons of waste into compost, biofuel or new objects. That is close to 98% of all refuse that it receives. For Aleksa Petkovic, this is clear evidence that Zero Waste can be achieved in the Western Balkans. “All that is required is that the Serbian government improves the collection and sorting process, which at least would allow to make better use of organic waste.”

Dioxins and furan

“With public-private partnerships, it is always hard to decide who wins: the corporation or the general interest?” says Nemanja Nenadic, of Transparency Serbia. He still asks himself this question even after participating in the committee tasked with assessing companies’ pre-selected tenders for Vinca. It is not any easier for city council members, who only had a few days to read the 1000-plus pages of the contract, which have not been translated into Serbian. The European Investment Bank, another financial institution of the European Union, was supposed to fund part of Suez’ initial investment, but eventually withdrew its support because it deemed the project incompatible with EU environmental norms. This, however, did not prevent the European Reconstruction and Development Bank (ERBD), which aims to facilitate the transition towards a market economy in Eastern Europe, from green-lighting the project.

“This partnership with the private sector introduces a new way to finance the public sector in Serbia, which is less exposed to political instability,” claims Alex Reiserer, a spokesperson for ERBD. “The contract will allow Belgrade to reduce pollution risks and prevent the destruction of ecosystems.” But by outsourcing the management of waste to a private company for 25 years, the city risks losing control of environmental hazard management. It’s true, however, that this has not been a priority for the government or the city council, which are both more preoccupied with attracting foreign investors to create jobs and revive a declining industrial sector.

“How will dioxins and furan emissions from the future incinerator be measured? There is no laboratory in Serbia that can do this,” Aleksa Petkovic points out. Until now, there weren’t many options for Belgradians that wanted to complain about the municipal landfill. But there will be even less once Beo Clean Energy Limited takes control of it.

“We will lodge an appeal with ERBD to get it to withdraw from this harmful project,” the Ne Davimo Beograd activist goes on. In spite of its determination, can his movement resist a billion-dollar plus project? If he ever comes back to power, Dragan Đjilas is also intent on cancelling the public-private partnership. “And if Suez sues us before an investment arbitration tribunal, someone in the administration will eventually talk, and we’ll know who in the city council profited from this crazy contract.”

By Benoît Collet

A journalist trained in local reporting, Benoît Collet (@benoitcollet1) now covers, as an independent journalist, social and ecological topics in France and in Europe, particularly in the Balkans region.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: © Benoît Collet.

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]
Article published as part of our investigation: «Cities versus multinationals»
More about our investigation