Waste and Recycling in Cold War Eastern Europe
The Case of the “Bee” Waste Collection Trust in Hungary
By Viktor Pál
The Soviet bloc has often been interpreted by social scientists as “dirty”, placed in opposition to the “clean” and “superior” West when it comes to the environment (Auer 2004; Feshbach and Friendly, Jr. 1988; Josephson 2013; Scott, 1998; Ziegler 1987). While it is true that the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies such as East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary committed terrible ecological crimes while pursuing extensive and rapid economic growth, Eastern European states also developed and employed complex repair, reuse and recycle systems (Brain & Pál, 2019, Gille, 2007, Pál, 2021).
This short study analyzes the professional and political discussions of post-industrial and post-consumer waste, discards and recycling in state-socialist Hungary and connects these discourses with the changing cultures of waste, discards, and recycling around the globe.
Circular versus Open Systems
Circular economies have existed in the past. Before the twentieth century, many human societies repaired, reused, and recycled widely, and their systems were closed and circular. It was first the USA that developed a more open system of waste that was based on the brief use of goods and disposable packaging before sending objects to incinerators and landfills (Strasser, 1999). According to Carl A. Zimring, the production of waste materials has been increasing steadily in the United States since the early 19th century (Zimring, 2005). Since then, open systems have spread around the globe. The Americanization of lifestyles and the global adoption of throwaway culture have had dramatic environmental consequences and have been identified by the scientific community as some of the main driving factors behind anthropogenic climate change and the global environmental crisis (Kennedy, 2019).
In parallel to this trend, the question emerges of how waste, discards, and recycling played out in Cold War Eastern Europe, where consumerism was denounced until the mid-1950s, and even after the Thaw socialist regimes maintained an ambivalent relationship with consumerism and waste (Gille, 2007; Pál, 2017).
Secondary Materials, Not Waste
In general, throughout the Soviet bloc raw materials were often scarce. Hence, entire industries were set up by the state to collect and reprocess recyclable post-industrial and post-consumer waste: bones, cardboards, fats, feathers, glasses, textiles, metals, papers and a long list of other materials. These were labelled in the socialist economy as “secondary materials,” and represented a yet to be utilized source of the imagined material prosperity in the Soviet bloc. Secondary materials also posed an opportunity to prove to the world that communism was thriftier and more economical than capitalism and its consumption-based, waste-generative system where disposability was celebrated (Pál, 2021).
By the early 1930s, the centralized network of Soiuzutil’ was set up in the USSR that was under the command of the NKLP – Ministry of Light Industry to collect and recycle secondary materials (Pristed, 2020). After the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, the Soviet recipe was adopted. First the centrally controlled five-year plans kicked off in 1949-1950 to command the economy onto an extensive industrialisation path. The adoption of the Soviet model has been severely criticised because of its wastefulness and constant material shortages (Kornai, 1992).
Communist governments aimed to mend material shortages with extensive efficiency improving and recycling efforts. Efficacy became a sort of obsession for socialist planners (Gille, 2007; Pál 2017). For example, in Hungary, several state-owned recycling companies were set up as branches of Ministries and large nationwide trusts. One of the first companies specializing in waste collection and recycling was the Wool Collecting Company which originally was set up to collect and transport shredded wool from private estates and state farms to the industry. Because the company’s business model concentrated on the two months of the shredding season, company officials sought ways to improve the company’s efficiency. To reach that goal, in 1950 the Wool Collecting Company set up a modest side business to collect wool rubbish, feathers, blankets, and pillows and sell them to state companies as raw materials. The idea became highly successful and gained political support. It did not take long for more important economic players to sense the opportunity in recycling and follow suit. The recycling game became prominent enough for the mighty Ministry of Heavy Industry, flagship of the communist economy, which set up its own nationwide network of the Iron and Metal Collecting Company (VAFÉM), which focused on the collection and recycling of postindustrial metal waste. (HU-MNL-JNSZML-XXXV.39)
The Thrifty Bee
After the death of Stalin, reform communists gained the upper hand in Hungary and quickly announced economic and social reforms. In the new system, heavy industries lost their primacy and the light industries gained prominence gradually. One of the signs of escalating crisis in the business of secondary materials was in 1954 when the Ministry of Light Industry, which was becoming gradually more resourceful, established the Secondary Material and Waste Collection Company, or the MÉH, to manage both post-industrial and post-consumer recycling (MÉH is an acronym that stands for “BEE” in English, as the flying insect often associated with industrious work and honey making). For the non-observant eye, MÉH company might have appeared as a somewhat reformed and somewhat enlarged new version of the marginal recycling branch of the Wool Collecting Company. But in fact, MÉH was set up to compete with other recycling companies, such as the VAFÉM, and to combine both post-industrial and post-consumer recycling efforts. This indicated a clear aim of the Ministry of Light Industry to control the recycling of all sorts of waste and discards in Hungary (MNL OL XXVI-A-14-b).
Between the 1950s and 1970s, MÉH evolved from a simple collect and return enterprise to a complex recycling venture of secondary materials. MÉH’s post-consumer campaigns proved to be especially popular within the population because the company maintained a wide network of collection points by the 1970s and offered cash or coupons for seemingly useless materials that might have ended up in the rubbish bin anyway. In the early 1970s in Hungary, nearly 100 per cent of non-ferrous metal items were produced from waste, and over a third of glass products manufactured was recycle based. By the same time MÉH grew into a nationwide conglomerate with the annual purchase volume of 500,000 tons of waste, an estimated value of 33 million USD at the time (that is the equivalent of about 225 million dollars today). MÉH also extended geographically and operated via a nationwide network of nearly 200 regional plants and outlets (MNL XXIX-A-1).
Companies similar to MÉH were responsible for state-controlled recycling throughout Eastern Europe under the Cold War. With the region’s democratic turn in 1989-1991, these companies often ceased to exist or remained in function as private companies, shadows of their predecessors. When considering the history of waste and recycling in Cold War Eastern Europe, the question emerges: how and why were human-waste relationships unique to these societies?
Forced industrialisation produced tremendous waste in Cold War Eastern Europe where heavy metals, chemicals, nuclear waste were only some of the wide array of pollution materials tainting the environment and endangering the human condition. However, simultaneously a unique approach evolved, and the efficiency of recycling became an obsession, albeit stemming from economic concerns. This obsession motivated the communists to seek total control over material cycles and glorify secondary materials as critical resources to run the communist economy. Post-consumer waste campaigns involved the entire society and extended the obsession of waste utilization beyond the industrial sector into the entire society.
Viktor Pál is a Grant-Funded Researcher and Coordinator for the Helsinki Environmental Humanities at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, Finland. His project “Pour me a Cold One: A Cold War History of Beverage Containers” is funded by the Kone Foundation. Pál’s first book “Technology and the Environment in State-Socialist Hungary. An Economic History” was published in 2017.
MNL JNSZML XXXV.39. Minutes of the Country Leading Bodies of the Hungarian Communist Party, Hungarian Workers’ Party and Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party 1945–1989, National Archives of Hungary, Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County Archives, Szolnok, Hungary.
MNL OL XXVI-A-14-b Hungarian News Agency, Top Secret Publications, National Archives of Hungary, National Archive, Budapest, Hungary.
MNL OL XXIX-A-1 Documents of the MÉH Trust, 1951-2002, National Archives of Hungary, National Archive, Budapest, Hungary.
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