‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry

‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry
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Most Europeans take pride in recycling. A good citizen separates glass from plastics, biowaste from metal cans and brags about it to their friends. Recycling helps soothe some of the anxiety driven by endless consumption.

However in Russia, recycling comes with a sense of shame. This is reflected by the fact that more than 80% of Russian domestic waste ends up in landfill, and most of the rest is incinerated. For comparison, Europe’s best recyclers – Austria and Germany – reuse well over 60% of their municipal waste while the UK manages 39%. A 2012 report by the International Financial Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, found that Russia’s waste recovery rate was “nearly zero”.

I first became aware of negative social attitudes to recycling in Russia during research in Samara (formerly Kuybyshev), the country’s sixth largest city and which lies in a twist of the river Volga 1,000km from Moscow. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a closed city hosting aviation and automobile industries. Along with a team of Russian and Finnish researchers, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the local culture and learn about the potential for developing eco-innovations in an economy undergoing rapid transition. The results of which were published late last year.

We focused on how people dealt with their waste. At first the task didn’t seem too gratifying as the people whose lives we followed told us they threw all their waste in the bin and that there was neither waste separation nor recycling.

Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided
Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided

But as we observed their daily lives, we noticed some people leaving beer bottles under the staircases of their apartment building. We also saw bottle collection points outdoors under trees or in shabby basement premises. The outdoor collection points were tended by women who told us their salary was some 200-300 roubles (about £2) a day, but they refused to tell who collected the bottles and paid their salary. We were usually thrown out of the basement recycling places as soon as it turned out we wanted information.

When we asked people whether they ever took bottles to these recycling points, most regarded the question as ridiculous. The question made a lot of sense to us as the families we asked were from the low-income tiers of society and could certainly have used the extra money. Probing the issue further we were told that “only alcoholics, drug addicts or poor babushkas [elderly women] who clean corridors” take bottles to recycling points.

In addition to the bottles, we also saw used cardboard neatly packed as if it was going somewhere. But nobody seemed to know who it belonged to and where it was heading for. Once, when taking a photo of one such cardboard pile, a bulky man came shouting loudly and chased us away.

The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided
The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided

It’s not easy to get access to companies in Russia, but we were lucky to find one waste management firm willing to talk to us. One morning we met the CEO in his office. After some champanskoye (sparkling wine) and chocolate he took us to visit his company’s landfill site. The company focused primarily on landfill, he told us, because to get involved in recycling or reused items was too risky a business; and waste fragments of any value, such as bottles and metals, were already in the hands of the mafia.

Recycling goes overground

Integrating this informal, underground recycling with official efforts to deal with waste is tough.

To give one example, we recently worked with Baltika brewery in St Petersburg, which wanted to start bottle collections because of the environmental policy of its parent company, Carlsberg Group. As part of an intensive course on corporate sustainability, an enthusiastic group of international and Russian students were asked to design bottle collection and recycling methods that would encourage Russians to recycle. Baltika wanted to set up an independent, stand-alone system.

Knowing about the informal bottled recycling, which seemed to be as well-organised in St Petersburg as it was in Samara, I suggested a collaboration with independent recyclers, given there was a system already up and running. The question was met with a cold response: such informal bottle collectors were regarded as criminals.

In Russia, informal recycling identifies you as some kind of undesirable. It is a heavily stigmatised activity and ordinary Russians make an effort not be seen doing it. People also view many recycling companies as either having links to organised crime, or risking conflict with such groups. So at both an individual level and more organised corporate level there are major barriers to setting up the types of systems taken for granted in other parts of Europe. And despite the best efforts of citizens and companies, don’t expect to hear about major advances in systematic large-scale recycling in Russia any time soon.


Microsoft to Bring Windows Phone’s Word Flow Keyboard to iOS

Microsoft to Bring Windows Phone's Word Flow Keyboard to iOS

Microsoft until now restricted its Word Flow Keyboard app to its own Windows Phone platform. The Redmond-based tech giant is now planning to bring it to Android and iOS as well.

In an email sent to some Windows Insider testers, shared by The Verge, Microsoft said it is hunting foriPhone 5s (or later) users to test the Word Flow keyboard app on iOS. The company however, did not mention as to when it will bring the final version of the app outside its ecosystem, or when work would begin on the Android version.

“Word Flow keyboard has long been one of the highly praised features on Windows Phone and was used to break the Guinness World Record for fastest texting. We are now working on extending this keyboard to other platforms, starting with iOS,” said the company in the email. “Before publicly releasing this keyboard to the App Store, we’d love to give Insiders like you a preview. With your feedback, we’ll build a roadmap of improvements to the keyboard over time.”

The Word flow keyboard debuted with Windows Phone 8.1 in 2014. The Swype keyboard-like feature allows users to glide over the display and type words. Like other third-party keyboard apps, the Word Flow also features word and emoji prediction.

Talking about keyboard apps, SwiftKey last month rolled out an update on Android that brings several new features including a revamped emoji panel. The update primarily brings a redesigned emoji panel, apart from new light and dark themed emoji panels. It also adds double-word prediction and offers two free new festive holiday themes for all users. The emoji panel will now also remember the last used category for user convenience.


Oyo Rooms Claims 1 Million Check-Ins; Celebrates With a Flash Sale

Oyo Rooms Claims 1 Million Check-Ins; Celebrates With a Flash Sale

Budget hotel aggregator Oyo Rooms made a splash on social media on Monday, claiming to have hit 1 million check-ins. The ticker on its website crossed the one million milestone at around 3:30pm IST.

According to the flash sale page, a thousand early birds get bookings at Rs. 99, but it appears to be sold out even though the ticker has yet to cross a thousand users on its homepage at 4:40pm.

Oyo Rooms has not responded to our email and phone requests for comment.

Founded in 2013, Oyo Rooms offers app and web-based booking of rooms with complimentary breakfast and Wi-Fi with 24×7 customer service support. The SoftBank-funded startup reportedly has a presence in 160 cities, and offers over 40,000 rooms, and announced the launch of its operations in Malaysia on January 12th.


Oyo Rooms has announced a flash sale for room bookings, with rooms going for Rs. 499 on select hotels till 10pm IST Monday. Users can use the code OYOMIL to avail of the discount, but was not valid for ‘pay at hotel’ transactions when we tested the code out.

WhatsApp Becomes Free, Drops Annual Subscription Fee


WhatsApp Becomes Free, Drops Annual Subscription Fee

WhatsApp will be getting rid of its $1 (approximately Rs. 68) annual subscription fee this year. The widely used messaging app confirmed plans to ditch annual fee from all of its apps across various platforms over the next several weeks.

Until now, WhatsApp asked some users to pay an annual fee for using the app after the first year of use – though as many of us have experienced, most users were not asked to pay after a year, and instead were given extensions each year. The company however believes that the approach of annual fee hasn’t worked successfully.

“Many WhatsApp users don’t have a debit or credit card number and they worried they’d lose access to their friends and family after their first year. So over the next several weeks, we’ll remove fees from the different versions of our app and WhatsApp will no longer charge you for our service”, says the company in an official blog post.

While confirming plans to axe the annual subscription, the company also hinted that the app is now being used by “nearly a billion people around the world.” Unfortunately, WhatsApp has not officially revealed the exact number of users worldwide like it did before. To recall, the popular instant messaging app reached over 900 million monthly active users milestone back in September last year.

Apart from scrapping the annual fee, WhatsApp also revealed its upcoming plans where it wants people to connect with businesses and organisation directly. The messaging service plans to bring tools for the new target audience. WhatsApp believes people can communicate with the bank or any other utility services directly via the messaging app. “We all get these messages elsewhere today – through text messages and phone calls – so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp,” adds the company.

WhatsApp for now has not detailed the tools it will be testing for bringing businesses and organisation closer to its users but we can expect to hear more soon. The company alongside also stressed that removing annual fee will not mean WhatsApp will introduce third-party ads.