The tracking device, hidden in a plastic bottle of yoghurt, signalled a move. A red dot on the smart phone’s screen showed that the empty bottle was in the waste management centre in Sežana.
Two days earlier, Oštro dropped it into a packaging waste bin at the Kozina gas station. But the device’s geolocation data revealed that the station’s workers simply threw separately collected plastic waste into a mixed waste container.
To Follow the Garbage and test the functionality of the Slovenian waste management system, reporters equipped it with trackers.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
Slovenes annually produce a little over a million tons of communal waste, therefore slightly under half a ton each. Oštro tracked 30 waste items through the waste management system to see whether they ended up in suitable facilities. Of those trackers that didn’t lose signal, all but one took the expected path.
Oštro disposed of household and hazardous waste, plastic and aluminum packaging, glass, electronics, tyres, candles, clothing and several items of bulky waste in trash bins and collection centres across the country. Before disposal, all were equipped with a hidden tracking device.
In the end, 13 out of 30 trackers lost their connection before they were moved from their disposal location, while 5 were tracked to local collection centres of public utility companies. Industry experts told Oštro that the loss of connection was either a result of a mechanical destruction of the device or depletion of batteries.
Petrol fixes the issue
At the end of last June, Oštro disposed of an empty plastic bottle of yoghurt at a Petrol gas station in Kozina into a trash bin marked with a yellow sign for packaging waste.
Two days later, the mobile application linked to the tracking device registered a move. The geodata showed that the empty bottle was first taken to the Sežana-based waste management centre (CERO). But the local Public Utility and Housing Company that manages CERO only transports mixed waste from the Kozina gas station and not sorted waste intended for recycling.
“If you correctly threw the waste item into the packaging bin, then the only possible explanation is that the employees of the gas service station simply put the content of the plastic packaging bin into our container for residual communal waste, given that we do not empty any other containers at gas stations,” says Mojca Uršič from KSP.
Petrol, a major gas service provider, confirmed this: “We have found that the waste item that had been correctly disposed of in the packaging waste bin, later ended up in the mixed communal waste container, which is contrary to internal rules for waste disposal and sorting.”
The company assured Oštro that it would “immediately see to it that waste management at the gas station Kozina is performed in line with the rules”. They also informed their waste management contractors of the case, and announced that they would check the situation at their other gas stations.
As it turned out, the gas station had not set an appropriate container for communal packaging waste for disposal of the contents of the packaging waste bins.
A week ago, Petrol informed Oštro that the Kozina gas station set up a container for separate collection of communal packaging waste. The waste management centre in Sežana does not treat residual communal waste, but temporarily stores the waste until the Krško-based company Kostak takes over as transferee.
Kostak then sorts the collected packaging to divide from it the secondary raw materials, such as some plastic and metal materials, that are to be recycled. The rest of the waste is used as fuel in cement production plants and other industrial energy facilities, the company explained.
Oštro asked Kostak what would have happened to the waste item, should their worker have noticed the tracking device. The Kostak explained that the worker would have to comply with the procedures and eliminate the device from the process due to the danger of fire that could be caused by devices, such as trackers.
“In general, we detect a lot of waste items among packaging waste that do not actually belong there, since they can contain hazardous materials, for instance batteries, metal capsules with flammable contents under pressure and some types of electronic devices that could cause a fire,” they added.
A day after the tracking device arrived in Krško, the yoghurt’s tracking device stopped emitting its signal. Given that the waste, due to logistical reasons, is compacted into square bales, Kostak assumed the tracker was most probably destroyed during this process.
Liquid detergent compacted into a bale
In November, we had hidden a tracking device in an empty liquid laundry detergent packaging and deposited it at the Ljubljana waste collection centre Barje. In two days, it arrived at the facility owned by Salomon, a company from Lenart in North-Eastern Slovenia, but four days later we lost the connection with the device.
“We were not able to locate the tracker. We can hardly imagine that a worker might notice this tracking device while quickly sorting waste on the production line as this is mixed communal packaging containing innumerable different packaging fractions and also other waste, which means that the very detection of suitable packaging to sort is challenging. Even if a worker had noticed the tracker, he surely could not have identified it,” Primož Gabrič, head of waste management at Salomon, told Oštro.
According to Gabrič, our detergent packaging had most probably been compressed in a waste compaction press, which is, he believes, the most probable reason for the destruction of the tracking device and the loss of signal. “This packaging is usually made of HDPE plastic, so our Lenart-based waste management centre set it aside and compacted it into a bale. All the sorted fractions are sent to recycling, that is, the processing unit. They are then processed into sheer granules that no longer constitute waste but are used to produce new packaging.”
The incinerated insecticide
In line with regulation on packaging and packaging waste, Slovenia should recycle at least 22,5% of all plastic waste and reach a 55% share by 2030. According to the most recent data of the Slovenian Environment Agency (Arso), approximately a half of collected plastic waste was recycled in 2019.
The rest mostly ended up in incineration facilities abroad. In 2019, approximately a half of almost 50 thousand tons of plastic packaging waste was exported; of this, more than 13 thousand tons were incinerated.
An empty bottle of insecticide that we disposed of at the end of June in a collection centre in Vrhnika was sent abroad to be incinerated. We placed it among hazardous waste, given that the product’s safety data stated that the active substance in the product was hazardous to health and the environment.
The regulation on packaging and packaging waste states that empty and clean packaging of hazardous chemicals should not be treated as hazardous waste. For liquids, the packaging is considered empty, if it does not drip, but Jože Gregorič, project manager of the Barje collection centre, told Oštro that it is difficult to explain to the public when exactly the packaging is empty enough not to constitute hazardous waste. He advised those in doubt to dispose of such packaging among hazardous waste at the collection centre, where it is inspected by qualified workers who will decide on how to treat it.
At the Vrhnika collection centre, they seemed to have decided that Oštro’s insecticide packaging was hazardous. At the end of September, the waste’s tracking device registered a move to the vicinity of Kidričevo, where a centre for hazardous waste management is located. IT is owned by the company Saubermacher that has a contract with the local Public Utility Company for the transport of hazardous waste.
Saubermacher said that the waste from Kidričevo is sent for incineration abroad, but they declined to disclose the company it is transferred to.
Later on the same day that it arrived in Kidričevo, the empty insecticide bottle was transported to the vicinity of Arnoldstein in Austria. A company named ABRG operates a waste processing plant there that also accepts and incinerates packaging contaminated with hazardous materials. Oštro was unable to confirm the exact location of the empty bottle as the tracker lost its signal.
Oštro asked the Vrhnika Public Utility Company why the packaging was transferred to Saubermacher as hazardous waste when it was empty. They said that “such packaging always contains some residues and is therefore treated as contaminated”.
However, according to the available data, the packaging of the insecticide Oštro had disposed of is not hazardous waste. The concentration of the active ingredient is lower than the threshold set for hazardous waste by the EU directive on waste.
Regardless, the Public Utility Company confirmed they assessed it as hazardous waste and that in case of any doubts “they always decide in favour of nature or the environment”.
Recycling Recycled Plastic
We have deposited a green mineral water plastic bottle into the Železniki packaging container, and after two weeks, its tracking device emitted a signal from the Draga collection centre near Škofja Loka, before we lost contact with it.
A year ago, the company Atlantic Droga Kolinska stopped using glass bottles for bottling its Donat mineral water, so it is now only available in plastic bottles, which are made of recycled materials. The company explained they were composed of greed plastic bottles, bought from them by the Austrian recycling company Alpla and then processed into a recycled granulate.
In Alpla, they have stated for Oštro that even the plastic bottles from recycled plastic can be recycled again. True, this somewhat affects the quality of the material produced in this manner, however, it is still suitable, they have added. Thus, the recycled Donat plastic bottles are again submitted to recycling.
According to the EU regulation on packaging and packaging waste, the binding objective for the year 2030 is that at least 70% of all types of packaging waste must be recycled.
Arso says that Slovenia was close to this goal in 2019 when 67.1% of all separately collected packaging had been recycled. A little over a half of it ended up being processed abroad.
Separate textile waste collection, also a subject of inquiry for the Follow the Garbage project has so far not been prescribed by law. The findings of last year’s survey Obleka naredi človeka (You Are What You Wear) by the fair trade Institute 3MUHE and two environmental associations, Ekologi brez meja (Ecologists without Borders) and Focus, show that most of the clothing waste ends up in mixed communal waste containers.
The Follow the Garbage project showed that at least two clothing items, torn and useless, were headed for export.