Separate Waste Collection as Russians’ Voluntary Practice: The Dynamics, Factors and Potential

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: National Research University “Higher School of Economics”
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameSotsiologicheskie issledovaniya
EditionIssue 9

The paper presents the data of three all-Russia representative surveys (2014, 2017 and 2020) on the dynamics of the levels, factors and conditions of citizens’ engagement in the practice of separate household waste collection (SWC). It has been ascertained that today a major (and increasingly growing) share of Russians do not reject their engagement in SWC but put forward a counter-demand for an available and convenient infrastructure and information in this sphere. The progress in the development of an enabling environment in 2019–2020 had an impact on the sharp increase in the number of actual SWC participants, a growing number of potential participants and a drastic decline of those who are indifferent, which somehow mitigated adverse impact of the waste problem owing to the pandemic. The study provides evidence that despite the persistence of key motivations and factors of engagement in SWC, significant changes occurred in their structure in 2020 resulting from the waste reform, change in the quality structure of participants and the pandemic challenge. Based on the new wave of the survey, the paper makes a conclusion about the potential and measures for further enhancement of Russians’ participation in SWC.

Keywordswaste issue, civil society, separate collection of household waste, environmental consumer responsibility, pro-environmental behavior, ethical consumption, COVID-19 pandemic
AcknowledgmentThis article is a translation of: Шабанова М.А. Раздельный сбор бытовых отходов как добровольная практика россиян: динамика, факторы, потенциал // Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniia. 2021. No 8: 104–117. DOI: 10.31857/S013216250015256-4
Publication date27.09.2021
Number of characters47037
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1 Introduction. The severity of the waste issue in Russia is on the rise. It is manifested by congestion of existing landfills, reproduction of unauthorized landfills, increase in the volume and appearance of new types of waste amid the pandemic, discontent and public protests against dumping, etc. The experience of countries that have had a great progress in solving the waste issue over the past two or three decades indicates that recycling with pre-sorting of waste into different fractions is the most effective and safe way to deal with waste [Hoornweg, Bhada-Tata, 2012: 27]. In Russia, the separate collection of household waste (SCHW) remains a purely voluntary practice of civil society (CS): it is promoted mainly by pro-environmental and pro-social grounds, it is associated with additional efforts and time costs on the part of participants, but is not accompanied by any incentives or sanctions. The boundaries of this sphere of the civil society are constantly changing and depend on the actions of other concerned parties, as well as on trigger events. The specifics of 2020 consists in the simultaneous impact of two differently directed processes on the participation of Russians in the SCHW: active promotion by the government and business of the conditions for the SCHW and COVID-19 pandemic that complicated this promotion.
2 Amid the pandemic, the conditions for participation of all actors in the reform of this sphere have become more complicated: firstly, the volume of garbage in the residential sector has increased (according to regional operators, averagely by one third)1, new types of garbage (masks, gloves) have appeared; and secondly, consumer preferences have changed. Among them there are unwillingness to bring household waste to separated containers due to the fear of infections in the elevator; increased consumption of antibacterial wet wipes and products, disposable bags; rapid growth of online purchases, and, accordingly, packaging materials, etc. In addition, the pandemic has suspended the work of companies and charitable organizations that take away (accept as a gift) unnecessary items/things, free transfer or peer-to-peer sales of used things or other items. The volume of garbage thrown out has also increased in connection with general cleaning and repairs of apartments/houses, which were pushed by forced isolation. In some countries, the researchers have recorded an increase in demand for new products due to the fact that the second hand stores are closed and are usually not present on the Internet [Ikiz et al., 2021]. The experts predict that a number of new consumer habits will continue after the pandemic [Giudice et al., 2020; Hobbs, 2020]. 1. Garbage removal operators in the regions faced an increase in waste // TASS. 2020. April 6. URL: >>>> (reference date: 17.06.2021).
3 How do these changes, which have complicated the implementation of the garbage reform in Russia, overlap with the steps taken (since the beginning of 2019) by the government and business in developing a favorable environment for SCHW? Which of the effects was stronger? Have there been any advances in involving Russians in the SCHW by the end of 2020 in comparison with the pre-pandemic period, when the situation practically did not change? How have the social potential, motives, factors and conditions for involving in the SCHW changed? Without an answer to these questions, it is impossible to understand the prospects for SCHW development in the Russian institutional and cultural environment as well as the degree of civil society involvement, without knowledge of which it is impossible to fully assess the economic significance of the latter. The goal of the research is to identify the dynamics (2014, 2017, 2020) of the levels, factors and conditions of Russians’actual and potential involvement in the SCHW as a voluntary practice of the civil society, and also to justify on this basis the measures for further expansion of the SCHW.
4 Theoretical perspectives and extant research. In Russia, the SCHW, while remaining a voluntary choice of the civil society, essentially reflects what M. Micheletti calls an individualized collective action [Micheletti, 2003]. Individuals from different social groups, outside of membership in any civil associations or parties, on their own initiative take responsibility for a problem that they consider socially important. They devote more time and make more efforts, alone or together with others, promoting the solution of an urgent problem in their understanding. This type of activity allows self-realization, combining personal interest and the сommon good [ibid: 25-26]. This everyday activism, which is based not on given (structural), but on flexible (contextual) identities embedded in specific situations, occurs in a variety of spheres. Ethical consumption, including ethical handling of household waste, is one of them.
5 To understand the real patterns of the formation of voluntary pro-environmental /prosocial practices in a changing (due to both the activities of other actors and unexpected trigger events) external environment, it is advisable to integrate Micheletti's ideal construct (detached from structures) into the concepts that consider different aspects of the connections between the levels of social reality - subjects/actions and structures. This allows us to supplement the theoretical understanding of the subject of research with the following main propositions.

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