Albania Court to Weigh Historic Trash Referendum

The Constitutional Court on Tuesday will hear arguments about a referendum on waste imports, the first such grassroots initiative in Albania’s history.The request, which is spearheaded by a group of activists, environmentalists and intellectuals, has collected more than 64,000 signatures, calling for the annulment of a law that allows waste imports into Albania.

The signatures, collected by the Alliance Against Waste Imports, AKIP, have already been certified by the Central Electoral Commission, which requires 50,000 signatures for a referendum. The court is expected to weigh on the constitutionality of the request.

If the request is approved it will mark the first referendum in Albania’s history called by voters. The only two referendums held since the collapse of the Communist regime of former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1991, were meant to approve Albania’s constitution.

“A referendum through a citizens’ initiative has never been held in Albania’s 100 years of history,” says political scientist, Blendi Kajsiu, underling the importance of the court’s decision.

According to Kajsiu, the need for a referendum is more acute than ever, because the country’s nascent democracy is struggling with a crisis of representation and legitimacy, in which the citizens have been reduced into spectators.

“The public sphere has been usurped by private interests who talk to themselves in a vicious circle and not the citizens,” Kajsiu said.

“The first act to break this circle is this grassroots referendum, which will transform the citizen from a spectator into an actor,” he added.

Arguing that Albania’s nascent recycling industry could not survive on the proceeds of domestic waste alone, in November 2011 the government approved a bill allowing some waste to be imported into the country so long as it conformed to a so-called “green list” of 55 materials.

After the approval of the law, activists joined forces and formed AKIP to condemn the change to the law and to demand a referendum on the issue, arguing that by allowing in such imports Albania was turning itself into the garbage can of Europe.

A report released on Saturday by the advocacy group underlines that since the approval of the law, Albania’s recycling industry has been orientated toward waste imports, and trash now dots highways, rivers and once idyllic beaches.

In total, since 2011, nine companies have requested import licenses from the Ministry of Environment. The ministry has approved requests for 692,200 tons of waste to be imported annually, mostly aluminum scrap, rubber, plastic and end-of-life automobiles. The import quotas represent 92 per cent of the total installed capacity of the industry.

“The recycling industry is now oriented toward imports and the plants being built are located near border crossings,” says environmental activist Lavdosh Ferruni, who co-authored the report.

According to Ferruni, Albania’s corrupt public administration lacks the capacities to control a lucrative and high-risk business like waste imports, where globally elements of organized crime are involved, especially in its next-door neighbour, Italy.

“The fact the southern Italy is facing an acute problem with waste and that the business there is run by mafia, makes Albania an easy destination,” he said. “The threat that the country might become Europe’s landfill is not theoretical but real,” Ferruni warned.

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