Why Ulaanbaatar needs better trash cans more than half-painted buildings

The half painted buildings and a trash can

It’s amazing how we have finally welcomed warm temperatures after the bone shaking dzud brought to us by El Nino. While herders and farmers in the countryside are trying to resuscitate their livestock and their ailing income, residents of Ulaanbaatar are experiencing major changes to their environment thanks to the preparations for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit to take place on June 15 and 16.

The state has been rebuilding roads and sidewalks, building bicycle lanes, painting curbs and pavement, demolishing fences, and painting building facades for a 12 billion MNT total makeover of the city. By total makeover I mean the 13 streets that ASEM guests will be using during their stay here.

The city center looks much more colorful with the newly blossomed trees and bushes, as well as the red and yellow painted sidewalks. Walking in stilettos is not as much of a fright anymore on the 13 streets thanks to the pavement and road repair work. Many buildings have been renovated and painted, although not fully, and only on the sides that will be visible to the ASEM guests during their stay here.

I have to say, this may be the best that Ulaanbaatar has looked in a while. The city is almost shining on three sides (the front, sides, and roofs were painted, but the backs of buildings were neglected) for the summit. Why the buildings weren’t fully painted, I don’t know. It seems to prove to me that we are a people who are not good at completing things.

It is also amazing to smell the freshly thawing waste for a month, and having plastic bags fly into your face while Mongolian spring weather is at play with winds above seven meters per second every day.

According to a spokesperson for the Ulaanbaatar Mayor’s Office, 500 trash bins are being placed in public areas this year in preparation for ASEM.

An open dumpster near Kempinski Hotel
An open dumpster near Kempinski Hotel

The trash bins are, of course, the same as every bin now on the streets today. The lids and sides of many trash cans currently on the streets seem to have been stolen and sold to steel dealers, as manhole covers were a decade ago, exposing every bit of trash to the high, open winds of Ulaanbaatar. The Staff of the Ulaanbaatar Mayor’s Office reported in April that 1,650 metal trash cans with lids, which can hold up to 450 liters of trash, were being placed around the city. Either I have become blind, or they still haven’t finished placing them around the city, as I have been surveying streets from Buyant Ukhaa-2 to Marshall Jukov House Museum in the last few weeks, only to find a few.

A few months back, Mayor E.Bat-Uul and Prime Minister Ch.Saikhanbileg asked Ulaanbaatar residents to leave the city during the ASEM Summit, which will take place two days after the National Naadam Festival ends. Some joked about it on social media, referring to their trips out of the city by the Mayor’s order, or posting pictures with makeup and fancy clothes, saying that only then were they ready to walk through the city. Some were infuriated with the “no offense” advice. Poet B.Lkhagvasuren even wrote a letter to PM Ch.Saikhanbileg, asking whether the government’s administrators would prefer to see the ASEM Summit take place in Mongolia without Mongolians.

If the city and state’s administrators are going to makeover only the parts of the city which will be seen by the guests of ASEM, and only allow people who suit the city’s makeover to be in the city during the summit, they should at least plan to place better trash bins on the streets – and a lot of them. Not only on the 13 streets, but in other areas as well, including the ger district, since they are located in the upper altitudes of the city. Trash on your pretty streets looks like a serious case of acne in a picture perfect makeover.

If we don’t fix the city’s underlying problem of poor waste management, the city will not look, smell, or feel pretty, no matter how much corrective concealer you try to apply.

As of 2013, Ulaanbaatarians dumped 246 tons of trash in unauthorized places every day, and 89,790 tons a year. While disturbing the makeover of the city’s 13 streets, the openly dumped trash contributes to the already high air, soil, and water pollution levels. According to a March 2016 report by the Geoecology Department of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, 88.3 percent of the soil in Ulaanbaatar has been contaminated with bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella. The highest levels of contamination are recorded near open dump sites, which are abundant in ger districts. Salmonella is a bacteria which causes food poisoning and typhoid and enteric fever.

In an interview with Ikon.mn, CEO of Tsagaan Khuaran Consulting P.Ganzorig mentioned that 60 percent of Ulaanbaatar households live in the ger district. I’m not sure how many people live on those 13 streets being repaired, but it’s obviously a relatively small amount. Although it is fully proper to try to improve the aesthetics of our city when we have an opportunity to show how much Mongolia has developed in its 21 years of democracy, I believe that policymakers should take the health and well-being of the city’s residents into greater account than aesthetics.

When it comes to waste, many private organizations and NGOs are working to improve the situation. Recently, Tehnoj Business Incubator and World Vision implemented a four-month project to teach children to recycle, reuse, and creatively save money by creating useful items from recycled material. On June 1, JCI and Naiz ni Naiziigaa Demjye NGO collected trash at Chinggis Square. Naiz ni Naiziigaa Demjye implemented a project to exchange waste for candy, which contributed to the first cleanly celebrated International Children’s Day at Chinggis Square. Other places, such as the National Amusement Park, were still filled with trash – as usual.

Citizen activism in Mongolia has been developing quite rapidly in the last few years, but civic volunteers still need support from the state.

Over 10 projects for the construction of waste management facilities have been initiated in Ulaanbaatar. They are still waiting on investments and won’t be finished by 2020. For now, we at least need better trash bins for the aesthetics of our city and for the health of our residents, not half-painted buildings.