In Romania, Recycling to Survive

Adrian Lungu

Homeless go about informal recycling with a quiet efficiency sorely lacking from official efforts

Ion Ciobanu, a homeless man in Bucharest, sits next to garbage collection bins and the waste he has collected to sell for recycling. Photo: Adrian Lungu

Ion Ciobanu lights a Viceroy cigarette as he stops to rest in front of a large Bucharest bookstore on the Romanian capital’s busiest boulevard. Nicotine has stained his white beard yellow around his mouth.

The 58-year-old homeless man has already rifled through the bins beside him, in search of waste he can sell for recycling.

Making 20 to 30 lei (€4-6) per day, Ciobanu is a tiny cog in a recycling system instituted in Romania to meet the rules of the European Union. But while Ciobanu does his bit to stay alive, the rest of the system is failing Romania dismally.

The former Communist country is the worst recycler in the 28-nation EU, reprocessing a meagre five percent of its municipal waste. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, served notice in May that it would refer Romania to the European Court of Justice within two months if Bucharest failed to rectify the situation.

I came across Ciobanu while investigating Romania’s recycling saga for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. People like Ciobanu, ‘picker-runners’ as he calls them, long pre-date the complex recycling arrangements instituted in the EU’s ex-Communist east, and work with a quiet efficiency sorely lacking from Romania’s official efforts.

“We are among the few homeless people who do not eat from the garbage,” Ciobanu says. He carries bread, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers in his backpack, and says his earnings finance trips to the public bath, laundry and essentials. He endeavours to save for rent in the winter when it becomes too cold to sleep in stairwells or courtyards.

Ciobanu has pale blue eyes behind glasses and, when I meet him, is wearing a Hard Rock Cafe Toronto cap, military-style jacket and clean, perhaps new, jeans and sneakers given to him as charity.

Ciobanu wakes at 4 a.m. most days to beat the garbage company to the bins, and has already walked more than half his daily 10 kilometre route by 10 a.m. On the day I meet him he has a large sack of flattened recyclable PET bottles and three smaller bags of waste to show for his early start.

The big collection bins in Bucharest belong to Eco-Rom Ambalaje, the biggest of ten so-called ‘producer responsibility organisations’ (PROs) created by packaged goods producers to remove the package waste left over from their products as the law requires. In late 2015, environmental inspectors and prosecutors launched an investigation into allegations that some of the PROs were involved in falsely inflating the amounts of waste being recycled. The case is ongoing and the PROs have challenged fines levied against them by the Environmental Fund Agency, an agency of the Environment Ministry.

As Romania seeks to clean up the mess, Ciobanu keeps pounding the streets, where, he says, only the strong survive. “That’s the law of the city, the law of the jungle,” he says, lighting another cigarette.

Adrian Lungu is an editor at the Romanian quarterly magazine Decat o Revista. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Adrian is investigating Romania’s troubled recycling system.