Armenia: the odyssey of Gyumri’s construction waste

Author: Armine Avetisyan
Edition: Our Habitat

Lala Stepanyan has been temporarily living in her house for 25 years.

“My husband and I moved to this shelter which was built using construction waste. It was supposed to be for a short period,” says the 65-year-old. “When neighbouring shelters are demolished we take the materials that we can use from there and fix our shelter. But the number of shelters is decreasing gradually and so is the source of our ‘construction’ material.”

Stepanyan is one of the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the devastating earthquake that hit Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, on 7 December 1988. The shock killed about 25,000 people while 20,612 buildings were destroyed or made unsuitable for living.

Natural disasters like Gyumri’s earthquakes generate vast amounts of debris, which adversely impacts on public health and the environment. Following the disaster, temporary shelters built with construction waste, like the Stepanyans’, mushroomed– many became permanent.

As people were slowly allocated proper housing these makeshift shelters were periodically demolished, but new refuge would be built on the same foundations. People would reuse the low-quality material over and over again to secure roofs and walls and insulate their ‘new’ homes.

The local city council says there are 2,800 shelters currently standing, housing as many families. Out of that number, 183 should be demolished as the families have been relocated to proper accommodations.

“Residents who receive permanent housing are tasked with tearing down the shelter and clearing up of the area,” explains the city hall’s spokesperson Sona Arakelyan, adding that “an ad-hoc area is allocated for construction waste at the city landfill.”

The procedure however is not always properly followed and environmentalists lament that, while there are occasional ad-hoc cleaning-up projects implemented by the city council and NGOs, the city lacks a comprehensive approach to incorporate construction waste into the waste management process.

Lala Stepanyan in the courtyard of a makeshift house built entirely of recovered material like scrap metal, glass, and wood.
The Stepanyans’ living room.
One of the estimated 2,800 makeshift shelters in Gyumri; the vast majority house families who remained homeless after the December 1988 earthquake.
A view of the only landfill in the city of Gyumri. The local council maintains that a specific section is allocated for construction waste while environmentalists argue that the place is suitable only for regular household waste.

“The city has only one functioning landfill, which is only suitable for household waste, not construction scrap,” maintains 45-year-old Gevorg Petrosyan, a social worker who has been involved in environmental advocacy for 15 years. “Also, residents can remove walls and roofs, for example, but cannot get completely rid of harmful substances, which remain behind, polluting the environment and posing threats to people’s health.”

These materials include asbestos and mineral wool which are both widely used for insulating buildings, making roofing shingles. A naturally occurring fiber which is mined, asbestos is a silicate mineral composed of long and thin fibrous crystals whose tensile strength and poor heat conduction make it the material of choice for insulation. Mineral wool is a man-made material made from molten glass, stone or industrial waste that is spun into a fibre-like structure. Both material can be released in the atmosphere by abrasion with long-term effects on people’s health - asbestos is known to be carcinogenic and exposure to the material can cause cancer in the lungs, larynx, and ovaries.

Waste management, including regulations for specific refuse, is a dire issue and Armenia is no exception. It is estimated that just five to seven percent of waste is sorted across the country.

“The current legislation sets that construction waste should be first sorted, which means that it should be determined on site what can be reused, and which waste materials should be transported to landfill,” details Harutyun Alpetyan, 39, a circular economy expert at the Yerevan-based Acopian Center for the Environment.

Alpetyan agrees that trained experts are needed to find a solution to remove construction waste due to its harmful substances. “Problems have been piling up for years, now the authorities are trying to solve them,” he adds.

In May 2019 the government announced the establishment of an ad-hoc task force to coordinate waste recycling activities. The first phase of the programme entails the study the quantity and composition of municipal solid trash, including the classification of construction and demolition industrial, electrical and electronic, agricultural, medical, and automotive waste by region and communities.

The study would be used to assess projects and investments in waste collection, recycling, soil remediation possibilities, and energy recovery.

At the local level something is already happening. Vahan Tumasyan heads the Shirak Centre, an NGO working to provide housing solutions for homeless people. A team of about ten people, mostly volunteers, demolish the shelters of the families the organisation manages to accommodate in regular houses. The centre has found housing for 160 families and demolished the same number of shelters since 2007. 

Vahan Tumasyan stands on a plot where a shelter once stood. The Shirak Center torn down the shelter but materials like mineral wool, which pose a health risk, remain in the air. Despite the danger, children still play on the plot.
Arshak Tumasyan, 22, uses recycled wood to build a building the Spitak Centre is constructing as a training workshop for vulnerable children.
The dining room of the guest house the Shirak Center runs. The facility, partly built with recycled construction waste, provides additional funds to the NGO in order to carry out its activities.
Sacks of recycled waste that can be used as fuel for families in need. The Shirak Centre started sorting construction waste in 2015.

“It is not complex and we use appropriate equipment and attire which is obviously not used by regular residents,” explains the 54-year-old who founded the organisation. “The hardest material to remove is mineral wool. We had a volunteer from abroad and we explained to him that he shouldn’t touch it with bare hands. He ignored us and for four days his whole body itched. It takes numerous baths a day to remove that dust, even wearing the proper clothing.”

Seeking solutions, in 2015 the NGOs started sorting and recycling that accumulated waste.

“After the demolition we sort it. Some of the material is suitable to be re-used in construction, some like waste wood can be used as fuel, and that we distribute to people in need in the city for the winter,” says Tumanyan. “What is the left is taken to the city landfill.”

Using materials from demolished shelters, the Shirak Centre is now constructing a two-floor building which will host a vocational workshop for children from vulnerable families.

For Tamunyan there is an inherent symbolism in tearing down these makeshift shelter.

“We are ready to get rid of this construction waste because we want to clear our city. Each demolished one is proof of a new life.”

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