Plastic bottles, old tires, cardboard boxes and other garbage block the flow of the Juzna Morava river — so badly that men in rubber boats need to use paddles to clear the way. A reek of waste fills the air. Elsewhere, plastic bags hang over bushes and down tree branches.

As Serbia seeks EU membership, it faces a major problem with environmental pollution — one that has been left to fester since the 1990s Balkans wars caused Serbs to neglect their once pristine eco-system. Only one fourth of Serbian waste dumps are in line with EU standards. The rest are so-called "wild dumps" which don't have a system to drain away waste waters and gases damaging the environment. At one such dump in Vinca, near the capital Belgrade, dozens of Gypsies have been separating a mountain of trash.

No Serbian city has filters for waste waters, which flow straight into the rivers. Air pollution from big city traffic is chronic, and unleaded gasoline was only introduced few years ago. Pollution levels in the mining city of Bor, in the east, are among the highest in Europe.

In its 2012 report about Serbia's progress in implementing EU standards, the European Commission said that "some progress has been achieved in the area of the environment." But it warned "significant further efforts are needed."