|A recycling plant outside the town of Buzau in southern Romania. Photo: George Popescu.|
On entering Romania’s Ministry of Environment, a visitor must turn their back on the country’s best-known and biggest building, the parliament. Its sheer size is almost too much to comprehend. For much of the day, it casts a very long shadow.
In the ministry, up marble stairs, past chandeliers, is the first-floor office of Raul Pop. In the corridor sit three miniature recycling bins – yellow, green and blue.
Pop took up residence in June as secretary of state in charge of waste, one of a host of experts drafted into a technocrat government that entered office six months earlier after a nightclub fire that killed 64 people triggered an outpouring of anger over corruption.
The government was given a one-year mandate until an election scheduled for December, invested with the hope of the people that things might change for the better after more than 25 years of broken promises since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the man who commissioned the parliament building.
Pop’s brief was recycling – neither popular nor sexy – but indicative of Romania’s slow progress since the collapse of communism.
The country is rubbish at recycling and the environment is paying. If nothing changes soon, the people will be paying too.
Roughly five per cent of municipal waste in Romania was recycled in 2013, according to the most recent data from the European Union’s statistics body, Eurostat, compared to an EU average of 28 per cent. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, blighting the countryside.
Come 2020, if it cannot achieve a recycling rate of 50 per cent, the country faces sanctions of up to 200,000 euros per day. Some officials are warning of the imminent cut-off of EU money for environmental protection, vital funds for one of the bloc’s poorest nations.
With a shaved head and spectacles, 43-year-old Pop is an economist and an expert in waste. His boss, the minister, 47-year-old Cristiana Pasca-Palmer, is an expert in environmental protection who, like Pop, dropped her regular job with the EU in Brussels to join the cause in the wake of the nightclub fire. She brought with her a 34-year-old advisor called Elena Rastei, an environmental activist from the central Romanian region of Transylvania.
With the clock ticking to a December election, the three faced a race against time to get Romania recycling, fearful that the clamour for change might die down when the politicians returned.
In Pop’s office, the past was in the wood panelling, the heavy desks and chandeliers. The present showed itself more timidly, in a red laptop and EU flag. The parliament, an uncomfortable reminder of Ceausescu’s megalomania, dominated the view from the window.
“Like any other change, there will be a tipping point,” said Pop. “It will grow slowly until it reaches a critical mass and then it becomes a standard way of behaviour.”
|Raul Pop, secretary of state in charge of waste at the Romanian Ministry of Environment. Photo: George Popescu.|
Stop the rot
The fire at the Colectiv club in Bucharest on October 30, 2015 may go down as a watershed moment in post-communist Romania.
Mourning quickly gave way to anger over concerns that safety may have been compromised by corruption.
The owners of the club operator, George Alin Anastasescu, Paul Catalin Gancea and Costin Mincu, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and put on trial. Two employees of the Emergency Situations Department of the Ministry of Interior, Antonina Radu and Petrica George Matei, were charged with abuse of office for allegedly failing to perform the mandatory inspections of the club.
For the thousands of Romanians who took to the streets in protest, the tragedy was a symbol of the corruption still eating away at the Romanian state and society.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned and President Klaus Iohannis turned to a former EU commissioner and agronomist, Dacian Ciolos, to take charge until a new election could be held a year later.
Ciolos, not a member of any political party at that moment, filled his cabinet with technocrats, experts, EU officials and civil society leaders. His government issued a mission statement, saying the nightclub tragedy, and its apparent causes, had created expectations within Romanian society “which cannot be ignored”.