How Russia's Waste Industry Intersects with Environmental Authoritarianism

Two billion tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) are produced globally each year. Of this waste, at least 33 percent is not managed in an environmentally safe manner, according to data from the World Bank. With such a stark amount of waste being disposed of incorrectly, it is no surprise that there are countless different strategies put in place by countries across the globe to tackle this issue. Each country has a distinct set of variables that impact how the waste industry takes form there.

Jonathan Pierron, Associate Editor & Content Producer

July 27, 2022

4 Min Read

Due to the complex combination of variables, no two countries approach the issue of municipal waste disposal (MSW) in the exact same ways. Scholars have a wide range of theories and predictions as to why the waste management industry of each nation develops in the way that it does; one of those theories is the idea of Environmental Authoritarianism.

Under this thought blueprint, academics believe there is a distinct connection between the presence of an authoritarian government and increased levels of recycling and proper disposal of waste.

In May 2022, Olga Masyutina, Ekaterina Paustyan, and Grigory Yakovlev with the University of Bremen released a research report supporting this idea and providing substantial backing to the case that authoritarian governments are better able to tackle environmental challenges.

The report titled,  “Environmental Politics in Authoritarian Regimes: Waste Management in the Russian Regions,” looks specifically at the varying levels of authoritarianism in the different regions of Russia and compares them directly to the rates at which the region is reported to suitably handle waste.

Looking at the country as a whole, the report states that in 2019 “7 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled while the rest was transported to landfill sites” and “according to a report of the Russian Accounts Chamber (2020), in 32 out of Russia’s 85 regions existing landfill capacities will be exhausted by 2024 (in 17 of them – by 2022) with no capabilities of building new ones.”

With an increase of 25 percent in the amount of MSW produced by the country, there appears to be a resounding waste problem. Russian citizens and politicians alike have allowed the issue to take center stage in conversations regarding the nation.

“A 2020 survey by the Levada Center, a Russian independent polling organization, showed that the number of people who thought waste disposal to be one of the biggest environmental challenges increased from 8% in 2010 to 17% in 2019.”

The issue has become heavily ingrained in the political atmosphere.

Using regional-level data for the period of 2012-2019, the authors of this research claim to see a significantly positive affect on recycled waste in regions with higher levels of votes for the United Russia party.

Before examining the ways this statement is true, a few key details regarding the transparency of authoritarian states must be addressed. It is made clear this system also has its failings. Under this political system, media and information is often monitored by the elite, meaning there is a higher likelihood of misinformation than under democratic states, for example.

This can take the form of skewing data on their environmental successes or even preventing citizens from seeing accurate news regarding the extent of environmental degradation in the country. This is one fundamental counter to the argument for environmental authoritarianism.

While democratic states have their pro’s when it comes to environmental concerns such as landfills or recycling rates, governments with authoritarian systems also have strengths, begging the questions: Does the level of authoritarianism matter? And is there a perfect middle ground between the two models that leads to astounding results within a country’s environmental concerns?

The researchers argue that several of Russia’s regions have found this equilibrium or are at least close to it. “Russia is an electoral authoritarian regime, meaning that it combines some elements of democracy and outright authoritarian practices” the researchers write.

Due to this, particular regions in the country are able to utilize their authoritarian system to push for what is the most effective method to eliminate the environmental concerns in that region. An example of this is the Belgorod Oblast region.

“In October 2019, a fully waste sorting complex was opened with a sorting capacity of 150,000 tons per year (the region produces around 500,000 tons of waste per year)” researchers noted on the region.

Controlling for the quality of regional institutions, the level of economic development, and level of urbanization, the data collected includes 78 Russian regions, and compares the rates of recycling with level of authoritarianism of each region based on the share of votes for the ruling party United Russia in the parliamentary elections.

“It [the report] indicates that regions with a higher share of votes for the United Russia party in the State Duma elections are more likely to recycle more of their municipal solid waste. This in turn gives some ground to suggest that environmental governance in Russia, at least in the area of waste management, connects to the concept of environmental authoritarianism.”

The researchers claim that one interpretation of this information could be that authoritarian regions have more power over citizens such as administrative and coercive capacities to implement policies.

Those with the University of Bremen state “the results suggest that more authoritarian governments, on average, are better able to tackle ecological problems than less authoritarian regimes.”

In conclusion, the report firmly decided that the increased rates of recycled MSW due to proper waste management, sorting, and government resources in more authoritarian regions was significant enough to their landfill problem to prove the positive impacts of environmental authoritarianism in the nation.

The full report can be found here.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Pierron

Associate Editor & Content Producer

John Pierron is the associate editor of Waste360. He graduated from Ohio University.

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