The waste management system in the south eastern town of Braila can be reduced to two simple words: Dan Apostol. You probably have never heard of this guy until now. He is a discreet director within the mayor’s office, a local advisor and a member of the Social Democrat party, the latter being a stance he confidently denies, a bizarre attitude in the era of Internet, when everything is easily found online.

Dan Apostol is like a Sergiu Nicolaescu (a Romanian movie director who has a long list of films which he directed, produced and in which he played the lead role) of waste. Similarly, Apostol has been running the local public service which controls the waste management system since 2007, a position in which he was recently reconfirmed by the mayor, after having “successfully fulfilled the assumed parameters of performance”. Parameters that have nothing to do with the waste management, a chapter which the local authorities, through their appointed representative, Dan Apostol, have failed to develop.

All in all, Apostol is a major flunk. The only exam he has not failed at is supporting the cause of the waste collectors, claiming they do a good job, despite the financial problems and the people’s lack of education. In a formal answer, the mayor’s office informed us that there are 120 selective collection containers in the city. However, the bare truth tells a different story: one can barely spot some 30 such containers which have been installed this spring, but which – people in nearby areas say – have never been emptied. Directors of the companies responsible to do the collection of separate waste and provide a frame for recycling admit to this truth as well. Their excuse: there’s not much they can do with the garbage, so the best solution is to leave containers full, on the streets.

Fatherly empathy

Like a father, Dan Apostol is empathetic with the difficulties waste collection operators are facing. Three companies are active in Braila, after having divided the city in three equal parts. One is RER Ecologic, the other one is Brai-Cata and the third one is ECO SA (controlled by the local council). Apostol is familiar with all of them. He was general manager of both Brai-Cata and RER, but this former stance, he says, is not an impediment to his present and unbiased judgment. One could hardly notice any kind of worrisome attitude in Dan Apostol’s posture. He admits of having heard some things about the European selective collection targets that Romania should reach, but the topic is way out of his league of interests, his only reaction to it being a rhetorical question of whether Romania is for real an EU member. Apostol’s plans for the future include a quiet retirement somewhere in Turkey, a country he praises for knowing how to serve tourists. Until the retirement years come, he leads a good life in a villa erected in the village of Varsatura nearby Braila – a place where the day’s rich have built tall and garishly colored houses.

As for the waste management system, in Braila things are far from perfect, even on paper. The only strong point is the business started by the former Social Democrat county prefect, Mihai Manea, who began, a decade ago, the first chain of ecological waste deposits in Romania. Named Tracon, the business expanded to several neighboring counties, such as Sibiu and Constanta. Today Manea lives in Constanta and is doing business with the Social Democrat deputy Eduard Manea (also known as the “Duke of garbage” in Constanta), who is the godfather of Silviu Prigoana’s youngest son. (Prigoana is a Liberal Democrat deputy who has made a fortune on hills of litter, starting a collection and recycling business in Bucharest).

Tracon was a God sent to the local authorities. Thanks to Manea’s business intuition, Braila authorities could check one of the objectives on the waste management strategy list: an ecological deposit. Unfortunately, all the other objectives are ignored. Not to mention that all the waste collected gets landfilled in Braila. Tracon taxes the ton of garbage for 45 lei, while each of the three companies collect a monthly tariff of 6.7 lei from the population, a tax that is established by the local council.

As for sorting and composting units, no mention of that, whatsoever. Apostol steps back when it comes to investments of any kind, he complains of the lack of money, argues that the three companies are poor and that, as a general statement, operating on the market is not such a big deal. “Not even a meatball”, as Apostol says.

Not just a prick, but an extraordinary guy

Turcu, who runs the Environment Police Bureau in neighboring town of Galati is good pals with Dan Apostol, the latter describing the former as “an extraordinary guy”. Turcu is the shadow businessman behind Brai-Cata, information which some of people in his entourage have confirmed. The story goes like this: in 2002 Turcu brought to Braila three Italians who owned the majority stake in Brai-Cata – Raffaele Esposito, Rosario Raneri and Ernesto Nudo. The three retired in 2008, passing their 51% stake to Urban SA, a company from Valcea county active on the waste market. Urban is the collector which closed an agreement with the mayor of sector 6 in Bucharest, doing the cleaning of a sixth of the capital.

Though officially out of the shareholders’ list, Turcu controls 25% of Brai-Cata, through Silviu Daniel Alexandru, a 32-year old youngster planted at the top of a pyramid of interests and personal connections. Alexandru is the son of Ilinca Alexandru, in her turn the best friend and former university colleague of Costela Lungu, who is Turcu’s life and business partner, a close acquaintance of theirs told us. Turcu and Costela Lungu are associates in his company Diplomat International, which is a minority shareholder at RER.

No meatball, no selective collection

Constantin Silisteanu runs RER Ecologic Braila, George Voiculet manages Brai-Cata and Alexandru Micu is the head of ECO SA, a company owned by the local council, plus Tracon together with Greek Athena SA, the last two as minority shareholders. Athena has been part of another ISPA project focused on the rehabilitation of the sewage system in the city, a 22 million euro worth of an investment, which has triumphantly failed. Gheorghe Cioaca, the general director of Tracon and a member of ECO’s board claims that the Greeks from Athena have stopped taking part in the board meetings at ECO more than a year and a half ago.

Each of the three waste collectors taxes services for residents with 6.7 lei per month and controls a third of the city. However, taxes applied to companies in Braila are differentiated, a reason of constant disagreement among the three. At the first meeting with Dan Apostol, in his rather dilapidated office on an old street in need of urgent revamping, he claimed of not being that acquainted with the three directors of the waste collecting companies. In a sudden turn of events, the next day, around 9 a.m. he had called the three of them to his office to meet the journalists, assigning each of them with specific roles. During the hour and a half spent tackling the waste problems in Braila, Micu, Silisteanu and Voiculet, at first uttering a very correct speech focused on needs and lacks, finally admitted to some of the incongruent issues in the system.

The first was the difference of tariffs for companies, one accusing the others of resorting to dumping prices in order to get more companies on the clientele list. The second one was they all shrugged shoulders when asked about selective collection of garbage. Voiculet said at first that selective collection figures are confidential, despite the fact that they all report them to the Ministry of Environment. However, when dwelling on the subject, Voiculet admitted Brai-Cata, which has installed most of the very few containers in the city has long stopped emptying them, complaining over the scarce and non lucrative recovering possibilities.

Despite the general evidence which points to the system’s inefficiency, each waste collector enjoys the advantages of a 30-year long contract with the mayor’s office, through which it receives money for keeping the streets clean and gets a third of the city to care for. Invariably, each director complains over the increasing level of debts among city residents which is the main cause for their lack of liquidities. However, data from the Public Finance Ministry show that all three companies have ended the 2010 financial year posting profit.

Also read the other three episodes of the investigation:

Very little time left

Belgium, one of the EU countries which can boast with high selective collection figures, erected the system on several strong pillars. William Vermeir, who runs FostPlus, the company which coordinates and finances selective collection and recycling of municipal waste in the country’s three regions, takes Romanian authorities out for a walk, pointing the backbones of the Belgian system: introducing a uniform model, tight collaboration of industry and retail, constant information campaigns and strict monitoring of the collection and recycling. In other words, the main ingredients to cook up an efficient waste management system.

From his Flemish pulpit and having the legitimacy of a 20-year experience in the field, Vermeir utters a litany for Romanians in charge of setting up the system: make sure you provide a good frame for municipalities to partner, create a single system of targets and fines for all actors involved in the system, develop a legal frame that props up the system, track what local authorities are doing, allow public-private partnerships and municipality-industry ones, monitor all results and check reports. But, just as those that call themselves believers and only go to church for Christmas and Easter, local authorities are dozing off in the back rows, faking interest but hiding their yawns while trying to find the best position to relieve their numb feet.

“It took us 10 years to make Belgians collect the waste separately”, Vermeir says, visibly worried because of the very little time Romania has left to do the same until the 2020 evaluation. “It will be hard for Romania. You need to put in a lot of effort and also carry out the necessary investments”, says the Belgian just like a teacher who is having a hard time convincing students to avoid the mistakes done by previous classes.

Under the threat of a new infringement

The current European waste management policy is based on a relatively new concept: that of waste hierarchy. This can be graphically translated into an inverted pyramid which places on top prevention, followed by reusing, recycling, recovering and moves depositing to the last place. In the new waste management matrix, depositing is the worst option possible as it generates significant loss of resources, which could otherwise be recovered and reused. Jose-Jorge Diaz del Castillo, an European official in charge of the directive to close landfills pointed Romania’s milestones: closing old dumps, waste prevention and recycling. All until 2020. field reality revealed that some local authorities have no idea what Romania’s selective collection targets are and admit to tweaking reports.
Jose-Jorge Diaz del Castillo: That is not a good practice and I hope that authorities realize it is up to them to create a functional system. We have granted Romania a grace period on the closure of landfills, but we cannot do that forever. The Commission would like to see measures implemented. If this does not happen, there could be more infringement procedures.

Does Brussels check the selective collection figures Romania reports?
Yes, Eurostat does that. We get figures from two years ago, this is the standard reporting procedure. Romania is lagging behind in terms of municipal waste that is being recycling, reaching only 1%. We hope the new figures we are awaiting show improvement.

Authorities complain that the waste reduction and selective collection targets are too hard to reach. What do you think?
We understand that Romania, along with Bulgaria, is a recent member of the EU and that it will take a while to see some change. This is the reason we have decided to grant a grace period on some sectors. However, waste management is an important issue as it affects all of us, plus the environment and we need to take measures in order to change the way waste is managed in these two countries. We have high expectations of Romania and Bulgaria and we hope they are taken seriously.

What is Romania’s most urgent problem in terms of waste management system?
The closure of landfills which are a threat both to the environment and to people’s health. Significant progress has been made, but we still see things stagnate in some cases or even delayed. There are European funds that can be accessed to create ecological deposits and start the selective collection system, so that municipalities ensure that the waste to get deposited is reduced. Everything that is separated before collection should be sorted and recycled.

Local authorities have transposed in national legislation the commitment to reduce by 15% the municipal waste that gets deposited. However, the European target requires a 25% such reduction. Where does the difference stem from?
This 25% refers to the biodegradable waste that should not get deposited. It is included in the European directive on landfills. Romania has asked for four-year derogation, so this objective first became a target in July 16, 2010. We should get the first such reports this fall. The other percentage of 15% is a target that refers to reducing all types of waste which get deposited, Romania being one of the countries with the highest levels of depositing.


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