23 ELR 10701 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1993 | All rights reserved

Exporting Environmental Protection

Ruth Greenspan Bell

[23 ELR 10701]

To help create a working system of environmental regulation and enforcement in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union ("the region"), those engaged in U.S. environmental assistance efforts must be sensitive to the institutional and cultural realities of the region. Most governments there have little experience in effective environmental protection, despite the long-standing existence of laws and some formal institutions which address environmental issues. For most of these countries, environmental protection has a relatively low priority compared to pressing economic demands.1 Additionally, although the experience gained in building environmental protection and enforcement institutions in the United States has much to offer the region, efforts to transplant concepts and institutions that have worked in the United States cannot succeed without consideration of the unique culture, experiences, and perceptions of the people of the region.

Conditions that have provided fertile ground for environmental protection in the United States include cultural attitudes shaped by affluence, established free market institutions, heavily developed communication and other infrastructures, private industry sectors that seek profits from managing pollution and waste disposal, and industries that have learned to incorporate environmental considerations into their businesses. Such advantages are rare in Central and Eastern Europe and are largely absent in the former Soviet Union. Environmental professionals participating in U.S. assistance efforts, however, sometimes fail to notice this difference2 or to consider how it affects public acceptance of environmental programs.3

This Dialogue examines the importance of culture and attitudes to environmental protection, using recycling as a framework for the discussion. Because recycling requires the cooperation of individual consumers, it illustrates the connection of the habits and concerns of consumers to effective environmental protection.

Consumer Attitudes and Recycling

Recycling has gained favor in the United States and Western Europe as a response to the rising volume of garbage and increases in disposal costs. Packaging is said to constitute about one-third, by weight, of municipal solid waste in both the United States and Europe.4 Discarded beer and soda bottles and cans represent one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. waste stream. In 1960, they constituted 2.4 percent of the waste stream; by 1988, the percentage was 4.1.5

Governments and environmental advocates in the United States and Western Europe have mandated and encouraged recycling to varying degrees and, in some areas, recycling has come to symbolize a progressive, conservation ethic. In affluent neighborhoods in the United States, recycling is now a family activity. Upscale catalogues advertise storage containers for recyclable matter and companies, such as McDonald's, advertise their use of packaging that is recyclable or otherwise reduces the volume of consumer waste.6 Germany has imposed significant domestic recycling requirements that are having repercussions throughout Europe.7

[23 ELR 10702]

Increasingly, western experts encourage recycling in societies in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For example, the Czech waste law, written with western assistance, includes recycling requirements.8 The United States emphasizes pollution prevention, which contains elements of recycling, in foreign environmental assistance. Nonetheless, to the consternation of some environmentalists, western packaging systems and disposable products have appeared in the region and there is evidence of a resulting proliferation of trash.9 Critics of this situation should bear in mind that disposable containers have a different symbolic and practical importance to residents of the region than to people in most western societies.

In Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, recycling has historically been tied to scarcity and poverty. During the socialist period, consumer convenience was not a high priority for the regions' governments. People stood in lines for hours to buy basic necessities and engaged in complex, time-consuming barter and trade.10 Recycling often was necessary for survival. Citizens found as many uses for the things they owned as feasible, and did not discard items until absolutely necessary.

In many places in the region, the problem of scarcity has eased and some formerly scarce items are now found in good supply. Women can now buy new nylons in the stores without great difficulty, rather than darning and patching old nylons again and again and then applying them to other uses.11 This freedom from recycling is a significant side benefit of the changes that have taken place in some parts of the region.

For some goods in the region, there is a movement away from recyclable containers. One example is bottled drinking water, which is commonly used in the region because of difficulties with public water supplies. In Warsaw, water is now available in nonreturnable plastic bottles or pouches. These disposable containers are beginning to replace returnable glass bottles, which required a deposit. Although this may appear to be a step backwards to U.S. environmentalists — who have worked hard to expand use of returnable containers in the United States — it is important to remember that few people in urban areas of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are able to load returnable bottles into the backs of station wagons to be returned during shopping expeditions. They take trams or buses to stores, and carry groceries up stairs to their flats. Thus, the availability of lighter plastic water bottles is a real benefit for these consumers. Nonetheless, unlike the old recycled glass bottles, plastic creates a lot of waste.12

As the region's economic systems begin to show greater respect for consumers, increased environmental impacts are almost inevitable. Consumers in Poland used to carry bags with them when they shopped. Now most stores provide the simple convenience of plastic bags to carry groceries home. For consumers, the contrast with practice under the old regime — which gave little weight to consumer ease — is palpable. Fast food has also come to the region, in part to accommodate new work habits. The joke under the old regime was "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." Although there were always those who worked long days in serious jobs, today more people are under greater economic pressure to put in full western-style work days. This reduces the time available for shopping and cooking. An increasing number of fast food restaurants and prepared foods in the region now provide the convenience — and the single-use serving dishes and utensils — to which working families in the United States have become accustomed. When Burger King opened in Warsaw in late 1992, 15,000 customers went in the door on the first day.

More attractive packaging, and the related increased use of plastic and aluminum, helps local entrepeneurs compete in local markets and even export their goods. The Polish water that is now sold in plastic containers stands a better chance of competing with imported water from Western Europe, which has been available in plastic bottles for years. It looks better than the old returnable bottles; there are no chips and tattered labels. Polish beers that were sold in returnable bottles are increasingly sold in easy-to-transport, western-looking aluminum cans, allowing entrepreneurs to gain commercial advantage. If disposable packaging makes Polish products more competitive, it may help Polish businesses create (or at least maintain) employment and avoid the currency and other losses that occur when imports capture domestic markets. Packaging developments that have negative environmental consequences may be a positive sign for economic transition and, thus, arguably offer a net benefit to societies in the region.

Disposable packaging can also represent other values important to consumers. In some cases, packaging changes improve hygiene. This is illustrated by the machines on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, that dispense beverages into glasses that the consumer is expected to rinse and leave for the next person. This system insults the consumer in several ways. Shared glasses are aesthetically displeasing, they spread disease, and they send a singular message about the value of the person drinking the beverage. A disposable cup results in waste, but it is personal, clean, and does not spread germs.

Transportation of food has chronically been a big problem in large parts of the region, reducing the amount of food in societies where shortages were already a fact of life. In Russia, meat is simply stacked in trucks; the meat on the bottom of the stack goes bad very quickly. More elaborate packaging would increase the amount of trash, but it would also reduce wastage that should not be tolerated in a poor society. More packaging can also mean that manufactured [23 ELR 10703] goods get from factories to the market place in better condition and with less damage.

Aesthetics also provide reasons for increased packaging, and complicate initiatives to reduce trash. In the past, visitors to the region — especially to the former Soviet Union — often remarked not only on the meager consumer items, but on the unattractive, flimsy packages the goods came in. Consumer purchases simply did not provide the same kind of basic satisfaction taken for granted in countries where merchandisers make enormous efforts to please consumers. Westerners rarely stop to consider the sense of well-being that comes with something that is nicely packaged. But the bright colors and pictures of well-known sports figures on breakfast cereal boxes, and the several layers of paper and plastic surrounding cosmetic products can be at least as important as the contents of such packages. Aesthetically pleasing packages differentiate one product from another and complement the consumer on his or her choices. In the newly opened western-style fast food restaurants of Warsaw, Moscow, and Budapest, cups decorated with logos help remind consumers that they have the discretionary funds and the opportunity to participate in the experience of buying soft drinks. Attractive containers are a source of pride, as is the freedom — taken for granted in the West — to discard them when empty.

Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic has provided a telling reaction to watching a television interview with Fidel Castro in 1987. Castro told the interviewer that he would not let his people have one car each, for ecological reasons.

It was early evening, the air was still hot, and sweat was pouring down my temples. But as Castro uttered that sentence, I shivered with cold. At that very moment, I detected for the first time in his words a frightening totalitarian idea in ecology — or better, the totalitarian use of ecology. He was asking his people to give up a better standard of living, even before they tasted it, in order to save the planet, to renounce in advance something that was glorified as the idea of progress. It seemed to me that asking for post-consumer ecological consciousness in a poor, pre-consumer society was nothing but an act of the totalitarian mind. We do live on the same planet, I thought, as his voice faded away, but not in the same world.13

Institutional Issues

There are, of course, significant constraints to the wholesale exportation of western environmental protection schemes besides cultural experiences. For example, Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union lack many institutions that implement environmental protection in the West. For recycling alone, these include institutions to collect, handle, and transport recyclable materials, facilities that can process the materials (still being developed in the West) and facilities that are willing and able to accept and use materials created from the recycling process.14 It is important to note that many of these institutions are in the private sector. The German recycling requirements, which are the most stringent of any western nation, place responsibility for implementation almost entirely in the private sector.15

It took many years even in western, traditionally market-based systems for the private sector to develop an ethic that allows environmental concerns to be heard in industry. In the West, companies that generate industrial waste are mostly for-profit businesses motivated by the bottom line (with the exception of federal facilities, where government enforcers face the most frustration).16 A complex and interrelated mixture of incentives — including the cost of handling and disposing of wastes, pervasive regulation, credible civil and criminal enforcement programs, and pressure from private insurers and lenders — discourages most private waste generators from taking illegal shortcuts and drives businesses to reduce waste and dispose of wastes as economically and practically as possible. Although the system does not work perfectly, private interests converge with public interests in the direction of environmental control. Political support for disposal requirements comes not only from environmentalists, but also from the private waste handling and disposal industry.

In Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where industrial capital is often still effectively in state hands and enterprises enjoy state subsidies and cheap energy and feedstocks, many of the important "cues" that encourage environmentally beneficial conduct in a regulated market economy are missing. Many governments in the region lack any significant experience with — or understanding of — the use of permits, compliance orders, stipulated penalties, and self-monitoring and reporting requirements to affect industrial behavior. Nonetheless, western experts continue to urge adoption of advanced economic incentive schemes, without considering whether economic and regulatory institutions in the region are capable of implementing such ideas.

It may often be valuable for U.S. assistors to present environmental protection techniques developed in western societies, but they must recognize the potentially limited value of some techniques in different legal and economic frameworks. For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),17 has successfully led to increased consideration of environmental impacts by U.S. executive agencies. This success, however, has been possible largely because U.S. courts are able and willing to address NEPA violations by issuing mandatory injunctions, potentially delaying — and increasing the costs of — politically popular projects. Equivalent injunctive remedies would be foreign to the legal traditions of many countries in the region. Moreover, even western democracies of the European Community have been hesitant to burden their decision-making processes with enforceable requirements for formal environmental assessments.18 Western advisors may [23 ELR 10704] need to explore alternative mechanisms for introducing to countries in the region the ethic of being thoughtful about development.19

More Effective Environmental Assistance

Shaping more effective assistance programs may mean stepping back from the notion that the region can "'leapfrog' the west economically and ecologically,"20 in favor of a realistic process of establishing assistance priorities consistent with the real risks facing these countries. In some cases, this may require not addressing certain environmental issues that are connected with the western image of living. A hunger for private cars where they were previously unavailable is not likely to translate into widespread support for measures that force greater use of public transportation, but the same public might support the phasing out of lead in gasoline. Two useful efforts to establish realistic priorities have been the statement of the Environment Ministers at the Lucerne Conference, and the work of the Polish Ministry of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry.21 Both have recommended that priorities be established for environmental expenditures on the basis of risk to human health and the environment.

Participants in the western assistance effort should emphasize the connection between environmental protection and energy efficiency. The energy sector is one of the most environmentally damaging sectors in the region. Countries in the region have been notoriously energy-inefficient, in part, because energy has been priced far below market rates. Price reform and other changes promoting energy efficiency could have major environmental (and safety) benefits.22 Greater energy efficiency would, for instance, reduce reliance on poorly designed and maintained nuclear plants and on brown, highly polluting coals.

Improvements in environmental assistance sometimes could be achieved though better local coordination of the assistance effort. One approach, increasingly used by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to locate representatives in the recipient country to manage and steer assistance. People who live, shop, drive, and build personal associations in the region have a better chance of understanding how to direct assistance than short-term visitors. Moreover, resident coordinators can provide better use of short-term visitors by targeting their expertise.

Another approach is the use of knowledgeable locals who have had experience in or with the West to act as honest brokers, mediating where necessary between western assistors and the host country to achieve a workable program. It is especially useful for complex projects, which will take a number of years to complete, to establish a local consultant — with clear lines of communication to the western partner — to give continuity to the local project and resolve issues as they come up.

Currently, some assistance efforts are distorted by evaluation methods that rely on tallies to measure program effectiveness. Assistance inputs (e.g., training sessions, attendees, etc.) are much easier to measure than the ultimate environmental results of assistance, many of which may not even occur until well after the initial evaluation period. This leads to an emphasis on easily replicated packaged training programs as opposed to long-term resource intensive contact. Packaged training sessions are relatively cheap because the same material is used in a number of countries and long-term follow-up programs are not included. Evaluators can count the number of training meetings per dollar and feel comfortable. At best, however, such programs can only be an introduction to concepts and should be followed with individualized "hands-on" efforts to craft the concepts to the unique circumstances of each country.


Assistance programs must be directed toward problems that recipients believe are both important and can legitimately be addressed within their own legal, institutional, and cultural constraints. A remedy that gets too far in front of a population's recognition that a malady exists will not gain acceptance. While one can argue that people in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union now have the opportunity to avoid mistakes made in the West, even the concept of "avoiding mistakes" may have totalitarian overtones, if — as Drakulic points out — the remedial activities are dictated without consideration of the preferences and desires of the affected population. In the case of environmental protection in the transitional economies of the region, solutions must be crafted in ways that are consistent with the expectations, desires, and experience of the region's citizens and with the state of development of its newly democratic institutions. The environmental movement of the United States has a lot to offer the emerging democracies of the region. But to make an effective contribution, there is a great deal that would-be assistors must learn about the values and experiences of the people they seek to help.

Ruth Greenspan Bell is Senior Attorney in the International Activities Division of the Office of General Counsel, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. From March 1991 to August 1991, she was Senior Fellow and Polish Representative for the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (Budapest). The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily represent EPA or the Regional Environmental Center.

1. See, e.g., Ruth Greenspan Bell, Environmental Law Drafting in Central and Eastern Europe, 22 ELR 10597 (Sept. 1992); Margaret Bowman & David Hunter, Environmental Reforms in Post-Communist Central Europe: From High Hopes to Hard Reality, 13 MICH. J. INT'L L. 301 (1992).

2. Cross-cultural assistance programs normally must face problems caused by differences in cultural attitudes. But the problem may be somewhat camouflaged in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union because many people in the region, particularly intellectuals and professionals, identify with Western Europe and its intellectual and educational traditions.

3. While this Dialogue focuses solely on the environmental assistance effort, the issue raised is part of a broader problem of U.S. assistance that sends, for example, experts in the U.S. secondary mortgage market to countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where even the basic concepts of private ownership of land and buildings are only beginning to develop and where mortgages are unheard of.

4. Bette K. Fishbein, European Packaging Initiatives: Leading the Way on Source Reduction, II SOURCE RECYCLING No. 3 (Mar. 1992).

5. Id.

6. See McDonald's Corporation/Environmental Defense Fund, Waste Reduction Task Force, Final Report (Apr. 1991) (on file with the Environmental Law Reporter).

7. Ordinance on the Avoidance of PackagingWaste (Verpackungsverordnung), BGBI 1 I F. 1234 (June 12, 1991); See, e.g., Richard L.A. Weiner & Stefan Tostmann, EC's Packaging Waste Dilemma: What Can the EC Learn From Germany's Bold Legislation? 19 INT'L BUS. LAW. 444 (Oct. 1991) (noting that Germany's recycling law may impermissibly restrict movement of goods in the European Community).

8. See Waste Management Act, Czech Republic Act No. 238/1991 (May 22, 1991).

9. The recent Greenpeace report, for example, complained about "[t]he appearance in Poland of Western packaging systems, such as asceptic (sic) carton packaging (e.g., Tetrapak), plastic bottles, and aluminum cans…." GREENPEACE, OPEN BORDERS, BROKEN PROMISES, 13 (Warsaw, June 3, 1993) (on file with the Environmental Law Reporter).

10. For example, Russian friends in Moscow, who wanted to take the author's family to the theater, engaged in a complex series of favors and arrangements to obtain four tickets which on their face were very inexpensive but in practice unattainable except through personal bartering.

11. See, e.g., SLAVENKA DRAKULIC, HOW WE SURVIVED COMMUNISM AND EVEN LAUGHED 179-181 (1991). In the poorer countries of the region, recycling of some items may be driven today less by scarcity than by price.

12. The Greenpeace report expressed concern about plastic bottles and aluminum cans "undermining the traditional practice of returning and re-using glass bottles." GREENPEACE, supra note 9, at 13.

13. DRAKULIC, supra note 11, at 138-39.

14. See, e.g., Environmentalists Try to Move the Markets, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 22, 1993, § 4 (The Week In Review), at 5, for a discussion of the difficulty of finding markets for recycled material.

15. Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste (Verpackungsverordnung), BGBI 1 I F. 1234 (June 12, 1991). See Turner T. Smith Jr. & Lucas Bergkamp, Packaging Waste Developments in Europe, 14 INT'L ENV'T REP. 522 (1991).

16. See, e.g., David B. Kopel, The Antideficiency Act: A Deficient Excuse for Federal Violation of Environmental Laws?, 23 ELR 10481 (Aug. 1993).

17. 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370a, ELR STAT. NEPA 003-014.

18. See, e.g., ECKARD REHBINDER & RICHARD STEWART, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION POLICY 105 (1988), and discussion in Bell, supra note 1.

19. See, e.g., WORLD BANK OPERATIONAL DIRECTIVE 4.00, ANNEX A (Oct. 1989) and WORLD BANK TECHNICAL PAPER NO. 139, ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT SOURCEBOOK (July 1991) (requiring preparation of environmental impact assessments to meet funding conditions).

20. GREENPEACE, supra note 9, at 51.


22. Even in countries that have made plans to improve energy efficiency, the move to market prices has been slowed by concerns about impacts to the rest of the economy.

23 ELR 10701 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1993 | All rights reserved