Albania to hold historic referendum on scrapping trash imports

Albania pledged Tuesday to hold a historic referendum on whether to scrap waste imports, a money-making program strongly opposed by environmentalists who say the poor Balkan country is already buried under its own trash.

A law passed in 2011 allows the import of non-radioactive waste for destruction or recycling in factories. But litter clogs rivers and piles up on the side of roads, and activists say the government can't be trusted to track the imported garbage.

The referendum is a major step for a country still working out its democracy some two decades after the fall of the repressive regime of communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Bowing to a petition signed by 64,000 people, the president's office on Tuesday set Dec. 22 as the date for the vote — the first forced by popular demand since the country gained independence from Ottoman Turkey in 1912.

The conservative government insists that the program is drawing foreign investment and has created some 3,000 badly needed local jobs to one of Europe's poorest countries. But environmentalists say the small country is in danger of turning into a garbage dump, and that the government must first build new landfills and take care of its own trash before it tries to take on more.

"How can we try to help the recycling business at a time when the country has not resolved its own waste management?," asked Zamir Dedej, who heads the Institute of Nature Protection in Albania.

The government has already built about half a dozen factories to handle the waste, but it has been tight-lipped about where the rubbish is coming from, though Albanian media have reported that much of it is coming from Italy.

Although the law stipulates that special government approval is needed for hazardous waste, its opponents say that is not enough.

"Our country still does not have the proper institutions or personnel to check the incoming waste," said Lavdosh Ferruni, an environmentalist and one of the leaders behind the referendum push.

A lawmaker with the main opposition Socialist Party, Besnik Bare, said his party will scrap the law if elected on June 23.