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Albania’s garbage problem affects its neighbors—and EU aspirations

Litter brought to shore from Albania’s rivers washed up hundreds of miles north in the port of Dubrovnik, Croatia—and environmental activists aren't surprised.

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Albania’s garbage problem affects its neighbors—and EU aspirations

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By Besar Likmeta

During Albania’s half-century long communist rule, its Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, fearing an invasion from the west, lined the country’s coast with thousands of mushroom-shaped bunkers. The invasion never came. But now Albania’s shorelines face a new threat from waste.

The sandy beach of the Cape of Rodon along the Adriatic coast in central Albania is covered with garbage. Plastic bottles, spray cans and all kinds of household waste have washed ashore, brought downstream by rivers and streams after heavy rainfall during the last few weeks.

Litter brought to shore from Albania’s rivers reportedly washed up hundreds of miles north in the port of Dubrovnik in Croatia. According to local media, more than 50 cubic metres of rubbish was scooped from the Old City’s harbor, which is a popular tourist destination.

Back in Tirana, environmentalists are not surprised. They explain that a lack of proper waste management policies in Albania spells danger for the Adriatic coast and that of its neighbors.

“Albania has many rivers and the rivers have been transformed into canals that collect trash coming from far-flung villages, but also big cities, and all this ends up in the sea. The currents in the Adriatic Sea flow from south to north—and so flows the waste and pollutes the northern Adriatic coast. Since it has ended up as far as Dubrovnik, I think it must have been a large amount of waste and the currents have been strong,” said Xhemal Mato, executive director of the environmental group Ekolevizje.

Albania is an EU candidate country and hopes that the upcoming year will open accession negotiations with Brussels. However, according to the 2016 European Commission progress report on Albania, waste segregation is non-existent and waste collection for recycling purposes is largely informal. The institutional capacity to manage waste still remains weak at all levels. Waste disposal remains largely noncompliant with environmental protection standards. A report published earlier in the year by Albania’s National Institute of Statistics, INSTAT, states that only 68 per cent of Albania’s population has access to waste disposal services. Much of the waste that is not collected washes up on Albania’s rivers and streams.

“It’s one of the criteria that waste management practices should meet EU standards, but this also remains a negative indicator for Albania as it will damage the tourism industry, because nobody wants to visit a beach covered in waste,” Xhemal Mato noted.

Underneath a bridge in the Tirana River, 12 kilometers outside the Albanian capital, garbage brought downstream by the water’s flow covers almost every inch of the river bank and has even climbed tree branches that look as if they have been dressed up for Halloween. Much of this garbage comes from the capital and its suburbs—and flows downstream to the Adriatic Sea. The exact quantity remains unknown.

“In Albania we lack exact data on the waste that is generated and we cannot say how much it is. However, the situation is problematic—that we can see." In all public places, urban or natural, we have abandoned waste, which means that we have a problem with waste management, not to mention integrated waste management.” said Ermelinda Mahmutaj, executive director of the environmental group Eden.

Environmental groups lament that Albanian authorities are doing too little to improve waste collection rates, prevention and recycling. Until this happens, its coastal neighbors will be on alert that some of the garbage may again wash onto their shores.