Huge areas of Albania are covered in trash as most of it ends up in illegal dumps. What's more: Albania even imports waste from other countries. Environmentalists have had enough and push for change.
There's garbage dumps everywhere: On streets and riverbanks, in Albania's capital Tirana, the harbor city of Durres as well as in the northern city of Shkoder. And it is not just private polluters dumping their waste - local municipalities take part in this as well. Durres for instance doesn't even have an official dumping site. Instead, it dumps the waste of its 200,000 residents in fields close-by where pigs and goats dig through the piles of garbage looking for something edible.
Rainfall washes pollutants into streams and rivers, which eventually end up in the ocean. Romany families rudimentary recycle at the dumps, where they search for plastic, paper, scrap metal and other usable material. But they simply burn the garbage to get to the metals, thus sending more pollutants into the water and air.
Pushing for change
Lavdosh Ferruni is one of the very few environmentalists in Albania. He has long complained about the numerous illegal garbage dumps in the country. However, nothing has changed so far.
"In the last 23 years, consumerism has exploded in Albania," he said. "But the infrastructure was not capable of keeping up. We are producing a lot more garbage than we can dispose of."
The Albanian government is trying to set up basic garbage disposals. For now, there are only two garbage dumps in the entire country which are in line with EU regulations: One is based in Tirana, the other one in the northern city of Bushat.
Albania's garbage doesn't only come from within the country. According to the Albanian Department of the Environment, 300,000 tons of scrap metal and 20,000 tons of plastic were imported in 2011 for processing, with much of it coming from Italy. That is about the same amount of garbage that Tirana generates per year.
Since Albanian custom authorities only randomly inspect garbage deliveries, environmentalists like Ferruni are up in arms. Along with the legal trash, they fear, illegal toxic waste is being imported, especially from southern Italy. They can't prove it, but plenty of rumors are circulating in the country. Albania's deputy Environment Minister Taulant Bino tried to downplay the issue in an interview, saying environmentalists are exaggerating, but also admitted the customs agency has had difficulties with a few employees. According to Bino, neither custom authorities nor the Albanian environment ministry can guarantee that no toxic waste is being imported.
Wolfgang Krause also came across Albania's garbage problems. Krause, a German citizen, was the manager of a disposal site in northern Albania until two years ago. On behalf of the German disposal company Becker, Krause invested 500,000 euros ($670,000) in expanding a dumping site and new recycling facilities. He signed contracts with local communities, arranging for the delivery of their waste for a fee of seven euros ($9) per ton. Krause then wanted to sort the garbage and resell the plastic to business associates for 60 euros per ton to finance the disposal site with revenues.
But the plan did not work out. The missing element: garbage. The disposal site is almost completely empty. Only eight percent of the anticipated amount of trash actually ended up here. Krause lost his job - despite the fact that the city of Shkoder, that was supposed to be his main supplier, produces about 2,000 tons of waste per month, according to the US Agency for International Development. That is enough to fill nearly 50 shipping containers with waste.
"Many of the surrounding communities still dump their waste onto the riverbank, dispersed among different dumping grounds, and wait for the waste to be washed into the ocean in springtime," Krause said. "That's probably the waste that has washed up in Croatia."
That's how communities avoid paying garbage disposal fees, he said. Shkoder's garbage dumps are clearly visible outside the city, along the banks of the river Kir.
Citizens are fed up
The population has had enough. In April, a broad alliance of activists, environmentalists and the socialist opposition party PS successfully pushed for a referendum which - at the very least - would halt garbage imports. The ballot is scheduled for the end of December - in all likelihood the population will vote against the imports. PS will make up the government since it won parliamentary elections in June. If they respect the people's opinion, importing recyclable trash will be banned or at least restricted.
But restrictions of waste imports alone won't solve all of Albania's trash woes if pollution within the country continues - much to the chagrin of environmentalists, investors, Albanian citizens and nature.