You’d be excused if you thought that vrećica had something to do with the global climate crisis that is gonna get the rest of us, not already fallen victims to global pandemics or the dictators occupying neighboring countries while wielding nuclear weapons. But no, let me put your mind to ease, it only means “baggie”. For the last month or so, specifically, referring to the garbage disposal baggies, which became emblematic of the new system of waste management introduced in Zagreb at the end of September.
The rationale is obvious: we buy more and more stuff, the stuff we buy is packaged in more and more (mostly) plastic and, generally speaking, there is more and more of us (not in Croatia, as the recent census has shown, but in Zagreb, the number of inhabitants is still managing to grow). And it’s a worldwide problem, I don’t know that there are any cities in the world where the waste management is handled perfectly. There are (partial) successes and failures; if you live in any city you probably heard about the Swiss or the Tokyo model of dealing with that particular problem that’s not going anywhere.
If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them. pic.twitter.com/00YECaHB4D
— Nathalie Gordon (@awlilnatty) March 3, 2016
In Zagreb, there’s one landfill, Jakuševac. It has been in horrible condition for as long as I can remember (and I’ve lived in Zagreb for my entire life, which is not… short). The former mayor promised and promised that it would get “remediated”, which is a phrase that got repeated so many times I don’t think anyone even knows what it means and what would happen to our garbage after that. One of the ways his administration started dealing with so much waste created by the people of the city was to put many (MANY) recycling bins for paper, plastics and biodegradable materials everywhere. So, every building and house in Zagreb got some of those. Let’s take an example of my small building, 2 km north of Ilica (so, not really in the suburbs): we have two wheely bins for mixed communal waste (“miješani komunalni otpad”, abbreviated to MKO, which is the abbreviation I’m gonna continue using in this article), a bin for paper and bio-waste each and we’re supposed to put our plastics somewhere to be picked once every two weeks in yellow bags. It’s been like that for years, the last major change was that the frequency of pick-up for plastics and paper was reduced during the pandemic and never returned to the pre-pandemic state.
So, we all had the possibility to separate our MKO from the plastics and biodegradables for a while now, and the yellow bags for plastics and brown ones for bio stuff was (semi-)regularly distributed to each household in Zagreb. There are also numerous “reciklažna dvorišta” (recycling centres of yards) located all over the city, where you can take just about any type of waste to be disposed of for free, as well as the so-called “green islands”, communal bins for plastic, paper, glass, textiles, which have been notoriously under-managed and unkept by the city, which is something that will hopefully change soon.
This article will not get into the nitty-gritty of how the global recycling of plastics has gotten to an abrupt halt, nor about the fact the facilities for the treatment of the biodegradable waste in Zagreb are nowhere near the capacity needed to process what was being produced annually by the city’s inhabitants. What has changed for the people of Zagreb as of October 1st is mostly as follows:
– most of the wheelie bins for MKO, paper and biodegradable waste have been removed from the streets in the center of the city. I have to say that the “center” is defined very loosely, and there are complaints about that being done in some places and not in others, but that’s a constant in this saga: there are non-stop complaints about every single decision here. People living in the center have to put their MKO in their “blue bags” in front of their buildings, each day between 8 and 10 pm if they want them to be removed, and wheel out the paper/bio bins on scheduled days to be emptied;
– the infamous “vrećice”: all of the mixed communal waste, meaning stuff you produce minus the recyclables should be disposed of exclusively in the blue bags, sold by the city in all major stores. They’re made in three sizes, 10, 20 and 40 litres, they’re sturdy, they’re not cheap (2, 4 and 8 kuna apiece, respectively) and there’s a whole legal argument about the legality of how they’re sold, procured etc (look at the previous point if you forgot about the favorite Croatian national sport: complaining). So, in addition to paying a fixed fee for waste management (currently at 45 kuna a month), you basically pay for the bags, which means that you pay for the amount of MKO you produce and dispose of. The more you recycle, the smaller amount of blue bags you’ll need, in theory. Then, you either put them in front of your building (if you’re in the center), or drop them in your still-existent wheelie bins in front of your house/building. You already see the problem: people here are not really good at following rules. They will throw their garbage in regular, non-blue-and-city-approved bags in their trash, so we were warned that there would be fines. Of course, the first thing you think of then is “I will just throw it in someone else’s trash”, which leads just about everyone to talk about locking/securing their wheelie bins in various ways, and some buildings have already done that, some plan to, and some just stick to the idea that it’s completely unimaginable that an apartment complex could be fined for something there’s no proof any of them have actually done.
For a while now, there has been a shortage of the blue vrećice in Zagreb supermarkets, especially the smallest, 10l ones, which is what most households are expected to use after learning to separate their waste. I’m sure the dust will eventually settle, and we’ll collectively learn to separate our trash (it’s really not that difficult or demanding; I’ve been doing it for at least 10 years and I don’t feel like it’s a bit inconvenience for my way of life) and then maybe we’ll be able to turn to the more important stuff in our lives than Zagreb waste management.