MOSCOW — It was five years ago, Andrey Protasov recalls, that he and his wife, Elena, decided to begin doing a very un-Russian sort of thing: recycling their garbage.
“We started thinking, why should we waste?” said Mr. Protasov. “We can save forests and other natural resources. It’s a message that goes to your soul.”
The two accountants began with paper, which they stashed on the balcony of their Soviet-era high-rise apartment in a middle-class suburb of Moscow. But they quickly ran into problems. Not surprisingly, since the city of Moscow has no recycling program (despite an impending garbage crisis), they had trouble finding a recycling center that would take their paper.
Internet searches were fruitless, and the commercial collection companies they found in the phone book were unwilling to accept small amounts of paper.
Four years went by, and the paper piled up waist-deep on the balcony, which led to a new problem — grandfather would wait until they left home and then throw the paper in the trash surreptitiously. “He was always trying to get rid of all the garbage from our balcony,” Mr. Protasov said, grinning. “He thought we were quite crazy guys.”
Surprising though it may be, the Protasovs, who eventually took a car-full of old paper to a private company an hour’s drive away and sold it for virtually nothing, are not alone.
In Russia, where most household trash goes straight to landfills, a small but growing cadre of people not only want to recycle, but are willing to go to great lengths to do so. They entertain modest dreams that they will someday inspire the government to institute wide-ranging regulations for garbage separation.
“Awareness is kind of rising,” said Alexander Tsygankov, a project coordinator at Greenpeace Russia, whose girlfriend initially objected to the idea of collecting old milk cartons, cans and plastic bottles in their one-room apartment. “We’ve definitely seen a change in the last two or three years.”
There is little doubt Moscow could use a robust recycling effort. The majority of the city’s landfills date to the Soviet period and fail to meet modern environmental standards. Furthermore, Greenpeace Russia has estimated that all of Moscow’s landfills will be full within the next two to four years.
In the absence of a broad municipal effort, die-hard recyclers have to rely on a hodgepodge of private, for-profit companies that are not always willing to accept small batches of recyclables, usually take only one kind of material, and are both far away and hard to find.
“The system is not user-friendly,” said Mr. Tsygankov. “You have to be really, really aware and sensitive to this issue to care.”
Tatiana Kargina, who began recycling paper when she moved to Moscow from Irkutsk five years ago for a job in education, falls into this category. Four years ago, when she discovered a brand-new, environmentally minded collection point that took not just paper or glass, but a range of recyclables, she started collecting all kinds of household waste — even batteries, which were not recyclable in Russia at the time. (When friends flew to Europe, they took the batteries with them.)
Every two months, she gladly made the 40-minute trip from her apartment to the recycling center. “The taxis were shocked when I put all this sorted garbage in the car,” she said. “They thought I was crazy.”
Moscow’s Department of Natural Resources said it is developing plans for separate waste collection as part of its environmental strategy for the city through 2030. But the consensus in the recycling community is that, despite the landfill crisis Moscow is facing, the city government is far from enthusiastic about instituting household recycling.
During the Soviet era, Moscow was a world leader in recycling, though not out of any concern for the environment. Back then, when shortages of basic goods were a fact of life, families returned empty milk bottles to the supermarket, youth groups competed to see who could collect the most paper and scrap metal, and some households collected food waste to be reused in agriculture. Plastic bags were scarce, and reused many times; there was little packaging, and most of it was paper.
“I didn’t like much about living in a totalitarian society,” said Oleg Izyumenko, an environmentalist who emigrated from Moscow to Sweden, where he now works for the Swedish environmental protection agency. “But as far as reuse and recycling, this was really a brilliant model.”
The demise of Soviet Communism put an end to all that. “The system cracked,” said Anton Kuznetsov, who in 2010 founded Sphere of Ecology, a private company that makes its money recycling waste for the Moscow offices of international corporations, as well as the Finnish, British, Dutch and Canadian Embassies. “Unfortunately.”
Today, individuals in Russia produce three times more trash than they did in Soviet times. The market economy has changed the composition of household waste, as well. Now, according to Greenpeace estimates, what Russians throw out contains 15 to 20 times more plastics than it used to, as well as more hazardous waste, like batteries and laptop computers.
Concerned about the situation, Sphere of Ecology set up two collection points for residents in Moscow. “We think it is needed,” said Mr. Kuznetsov. "We couldn’t turn people away.”
A handful of other initiatives have recently made recycling in the Russian capital a little more accessible. One of these is Greenpeace Russia’s online recycling map. Using addresses sent in by recyclers, the map lists some 350 collection points. “These are hidden, even creepy places,” said Anna Kopytova, who coordinates the map. “You might live two blocks away and never know.”
Some nonprofit collection points with environmental agendas have begun to appear on the map. Since June, for example, the Protasov family has been able to take all their recycling to the local park once a month.
There, “Separate Collection,” a volunteer-run group, has set up one of 30 outposts around the city. For a few hours, they put out temporary bins and collect a wide range of recyclables, from plastics to glass, paper, metal and batteries. But their main goal is educational, said the program’s 25-year-old founder, Valery Korosteleva. “We want to create demand for government to do something.”
Elena Barysheva, the 23-year-old founder of Recyclemag.ru, a new online magazine, attributes the current interest in recycling to a deep sense of political frustration. “Nowadays, people in Russia cannot really influence serious political aspects of their lives,” she said. “Recycling, this is a process you can control. If you cannot influence the government, you can influence this.”
After learning that many readers lacked the easy access to a collection point that she enjoys — Ms. Barysheva lives only three subway stops from one — this summer she and her boyfriend started their own mobile collection service, renting a truck and driving to collection points around the city on weekends. “Sometimes I think, ‘I’m interested in contemporary art — what am I doing carrying garbage?’ ” she said. “But it’s because I want to make a difference.”
It all started at the international youth forum "CARE OF THE EARTH." When in Star City in the summer of 2012 brought together students from different corners of the Earth. The kids loved the idea, because it does not require any special expenses and approvals can be just yourself, to act. Representatives of many different delegations discussed how to better organize the work and decided that returning home will be to involve young people interested in their own region.
That appeal, which they co-wrote the last day of the event: "We - teenagers. We understand that the time has come when major changes are needed in the system of human values. Everyone should realize that the only way to the development of civilization in the first place to produce and use only what is really needed for a normal life and try to bring the maximum benefit by participating in person. "