Authored by: Center for Energy, Environment and Resources (CENER 21)

Improving waste management in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia: The success of the Zero Waste Municipalities initiative



Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the waste produced by human activity has been recognized as a central environmental and social challenge, impacting everything from biodiversity to public health. The world currently creates over 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually. The largest portion is discharged in landfills and at least one third of all waste produced is not managed in an environmentally safe manner.[1] Projections show that global waste production is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes yearly, by 2050. The primary causes of these forecasts are the rising trend of waste levels, economic development, as well as urbanization and population growth.[1] Waste is a cross-cutting issue, posing challenges to human health from exposure to untreated waste, which often disproportionately impacts the most marginalized members of society. Moreover, it contributes to climate change and air pollution through the release of greenhouse and other dangerous gasses. The presence of waste in land and water ecosystems also exacerbates biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. In the face of growing resource scarcity on a global level, the issue of waste management extends to a wider economic development challenge, as a vast supply of untapped potential resources are lost through improper disposal.

The Western Balkans represent a region where significant efforts are required to tackle the issues of waste management. Although comprehensive up-to-date data is lacking, it is clear that most waste in the region ends up in landfills, with a high percentage being discharged in illegal or improperly regulated dump sites. It is estimated that 20 to 30% of waste is illegally dumped in BiH,[2] and an evaluation from 2021 estimates the existence of over 1400 illegal dump sites in the country.[3]  Despite the prevalence of landfilling, only a small portion of the legal dump sites in the region meet sanitary conditions (with only 8 sanitary dumpsites in BiH and 11 in Serbia).[3][4]  A lack of capacity for, and investment in, waste separation suggests that almost all waste is irreversibly lost through disposal. This presents a significant loss in potential resources, due to insufficient recycling and repurposing practices, which contributes to increased environmental pressures. In BiH and Serbia, 95% of waste is irreversibly lost through disposal, with recycling rates sitting at 2.2% in BiH in 2019, and 3% in Serbia in 2018. These rates are significantly lower in comparison to those of the EU in 2019, which amount to 48%.[5][6][7]

The challenges of waste management are evident in the region through the accumulation of solid waste in illegal dumpsites and rivers. A salient example of this is seen in the Drina River, which traverses along the Bosnian and Serbian border, where 6 to 8 thousand cubic meters of floating waste is collected annually. This issue made headlines in 2021, as the buildup threatened to shut down the Višegrad powerplant in Eastern Bosnia.[6] Improper waste management also poses more insidious challenges, such as contributing to the growing health concerns in the region due to air, water, and soil contamination. Therefore, it is imperative for sustainable development of the Western Balkans to put great emphasis on improving the current waste management situation, given the environmental, economic, and public health implications.

Zero waste concept

Given its multifaceted nature, waste management requires a multidisciplinary approach focused on strengthening management and regulation, improving citizen awareness and capacity for sustainable behavior, reducing waste production, as well as improving the reuse and valorization of resources available in waste. As such, the Zero Waste concept is increasingly recognized as a comprehensive approach to improving waste management. The idea focuses on the central aim of creating a system in which resources cycle through society and nature, with the ultimate goal of eliminating waste through improved and effective use, reuse, and transformation of resources. Closely related to the circular economy principle, the Zero Waste approach highlights the need for sustainable transformation across the supply chain, incorporating actions to decrease waste production and improve resource use efficiency, reuse, and recycling. This requires action at multiple levels, including awareness raising and capacity building among producers and consumers, innovations in recycling and reuse, improvements to resource efficiency in industries, and improved waste management infrastructure. 

Zero waste, as well as circular economy initiatives, are particularly crucial in Western Balkan nations such as BiH and Serbia, given the need for increased sustainable practice alongside economic development. While current per capita waste production rates in both Serbia and BiH remain below EU averages, they have been growing in the last decade and are expected to continue to rise, especially in Serbia.[3][4] As two nations seeking to reach a higher level of economic development, especially in the context of a post-COVID recovery, addressing waste management and harnessing it as a resource will be essential. Both BiH and Serbia’s resource productivity ratios (a measure of efficient utilization of resources via comparing gross domestic product to gross domestic consumption) are significantly lower than the EU average.[6][7] This highlights the need and the potential for economic growth through efforts aimed at increasing resource efficiency via Zero Waste and circular economic principles.

Zero Waste Municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia

The cross-border project Zero Waste Municipalities is an exciting example of a project working towards achieving a zero-waste future. Supported by the European Union through the IPA cross-border cooperation initiative, the project aims to support long-term resource efficiency in the waste management sectors of BiH and Serbia. The two-year project, initiated in March of 2021, strengthens the sustainable development of 90 municipalities across BiH and Serbia, with a special focus on six pilot municipalities: Visoko, Sarajevo Centar, and Ilijaš in BiH, and Vladimirci, Bajina Bašta, and Krupanj in Serbia. Designed to meet the needs of local actors involved in the provision of waste management services, the project introduces the new sustainable concept of waste as a resource that contributes to socio–economic development.

In response to the multifaceted challenges posed by waste and waste management, Zero Waste Municipalities developed an array of diverse activities, focused on the six pilot municipalities which act as inspiring and replicable examples of best practices. Through the project, these municipalities were supported in a series of capacity-building and tangible actions centered around five key activities: waste management planning, pilot projects, capacity-building, education, and communication and awareness raising. All of these activities were aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of public services and practices concerning solid waste through joint initiatives across both sides of the BiH and Serbian border.

Enhancing effective solid waste management planning

Improving waste management requires strengthening the overall management and planning of waste management systems and services. In particular, it entails the introduction of goals and methods of zero-waste and circular economy concepts into the planning and functioning of waste management systems. This can be achieved through strategic activities with waste utility providers and municipal representatives to ensure systemic improvements. Following an initial baseline analysis, determining the current situation and relevant key stakeholders, the Zero Waste Municipalities initiative implemented actions focused on improving the capacity for high-quality planning and management of solid waste in six pilot municipalities. Key municipal actors demonstrated a willingness to engage in zero-waste and circular economy discussions and provide their continuous support, which has proven to be crucial for a highly successful cooperation and implementation of the project’s goals.

Among the key actions implemented was the development of a “Zero waste action plan” for each of the six pilot municipalities. Those without general waste management plans noted the value of the action plan as a foundation to create such documents, while others with existing waste management plans recognized its supplemental value for future improvements. The initiative further supported the development of technical-investment documentation among municipalities to facilitate new waste management projects. The preparation of several crucial documents was aided, including the documentation for facilitating the creation of recycling yards in Sarajevo Centar and Krupanj, closing and rehabilitating the landfill in Ilijaš, constructing a municipal waste transfer station in Visoko, a feasibility study for diversion and composting of biowaste in Vladimirci, and, a conceptual solution for a transfer station in Bajina Bašta.

Moreover, the initiative supported the creation of interactive GIS maps to track illegal dumpsites around the municipalities. This challenge is faced across all the pilot areas, where over 90 illegal sites are reported annually. Through the project, 159 pollution hotspots were identified across the region, and valuable data was collected to facilitate the interactive tracking of dumpsites. This allowed for draft GIS maps to be prepared in all municipalities, where some plan to further develop and update them. The maps can be found here.

To concretize lessons learned and further support the implementation of best practices, two sets of guidelines were prepared and shared in the local languages: “Guidelines for best available technologies and best practices for the introduction of the zero-waste concept at the local level” and “Guidelines for monitoring and reporting on the success of the implementation of zero-waste practices at the local level.” These documents provide guiding principles and information about best practices in solid waste management, which are applicable to the six pilot municipalities and any other interested municipalities in BiH and Serbia.

Pilot actions to facilitate the adoption of the zero-waste paradigm within local communities

In order to fast-track action towards zero-waste municipalities and provide inspiring examples of best practices, the Zero Waste Municipalities initiative further included practical pilot actions, providing tangible materials, services, and equipment to the pilot municipalities. This includes the procurement and installation of equipment to improve waste management services and increase recycling, which encompasses containers for recyclable dry waste, containers for other mixed waste, and composters for organic, wet household waste. Pilot activities also included the cleaning of selected illegal landfills and the installation of large waste containers for community collection.

In total, 1440 sets of household waste-separation and compost bins were procured in total, and distributed to communities in each of the six pilot municipalities. This action was complimented by the provision of educational information on responsible waste disposal. The distribution of these materials allowed for an expansion of sorted waste and recycling of domestic waste in all six municipalities. Moreover, the solid waste management system was enhanced in all municipalities through the procurement and installation of large waste containers. The importance of local stakeholder input and discussion was clear through this activity, allowing for common best practices and background research to be adapted to the local realities.

Tangible actions to combat illegal dumpsites were further conducted, with all municipalities determining a key illegal site that is in greatest need of cleaning. Through the Zero Waste Municipalities project, six illegal landfills were cleaned in total, one per municipality, while Bajina Bašta went a step further and cleaned all the remaining 55 illegal landfills in their municipality.

Building the capacities of citizens and companies for sustainable solid waste management

As zero waste and circular economy concepts are still in their infancy, in both BiH and Serbia, capacity-building actions are a crucial first step towards a Zero waste future. To advance toward the concept of circular economy, building practical and technical skills is imperative.  As such, the Zero Waste Municipalities project worked to foster dialogue and build local capacities regarding good waste-management practices, and aid in the linear-to-circular waste transition among municipal institutions, waste utility staff, and local communities.

The dialogue was facilitated through training programs for local institutions engaged in waste management, where 239 key local stakeholders had the opportunity to participate in six workshops and one training conference. The training program “Implementation of initiatives for the introduction of the concept of Zero Waste in local communities”, which was held in February 2022, gathered over 150 participants from local waste utilities, local governments, social enterprises, NGOs, academia and other relevant sectors. The program served as a platform for knowledge exchange between stakeholders and eight expert lecturers from BiH and Serbia.

Through training workshops, 82 public utility staff across the pilot municipalities bolstered their capacities. Workshops were organized in each pilot municipality for representatives of the local municipality and waste management utility staff. Using the newly procured equipment as a focal point, workshops discussed methods for effective waste management, allowing a dialogue between participants’ local expertise and education on zero waste and best practices in waste management. To ensure continued improvements to waste management services, future roles and responsibilities were clearly discussed and determined. Moreover, a joint study visit to the Regional Waste Management Center in Maribor, Slovenia, was organized in 2022, allowing 18 key municipal actors in waste management to practically engage with the technical aspects of effective waste management.

Milestones in sustainability education: Successfully integrating Zero Waste into school curriculums

Improving waste management requires action from all facets of society, especially young generations. As such, through the Zero Waste Municipalities initiative, a team of professors, teachers, and circular economy and waste experts worked to create a teaching manual in the local languages titled: “Integration of waste management topics in existing school curriculums.” The aim of the manual is to provide high school educators with practical guidance for incorporating waste management and circular economy topics into their lessons. The success of these activities is seen in the introduction of the manual’s guidelines into the curriculum of six high schools in the region, to date. This is a significant accomplishment, as it represents the first time that schools in the area have incorporated such topics into their curriculum. This achievement deserves recognition as a positive step towards promoting sustainable waste management practices in the region.

Moreover, the project prepared and implemented a series of extracurricular activities for students and teachers to help them learn about a circular economy. Six high schools in the pilot municipalities received plastic recycling equipment through the program, which allowed for both practical classes and improved recycling levels in schools. Due to the initiative, six secondary education institutions have introduced environmental extracurricular programmes.

The manual strives to motivate students to consider the different possibilities for using items that have already been discarded, therefore extending the lifespan of products and reducing the amount of waste entering landfills. Understanding that waste management is a cross-cutting topic relevant to a range of subjects, the manual provides support for activities in a range of academic disciplines. This is seen in its implementation in diverse classrooms (from B.C.S language classes focused on spelling exercises, implemented in Prva Gimnazija Sarajevo and High-school center “Hazim Šabanović” Visoko, to Biology and Chemistry lessons on composting and the recycling process in high schools in Ilijiaš, Bajina Bašta and Vladimirci, to Business economy lessons on the circular economic model and product life cycles in High school Krupanj). In addition to bolstering curriculums, shredder sets and injectors were purchased for the six pilot secondary schools, and workshops were held on how to use this equipment.

Communication and awareness raising on waste management

Alongside targeted training and capacity-building, general citizen awareness and behavior are also crucial for a sustainable waste management transition. For this reason, the project further engaged with the citizens of BiH and Serbia through a general conference presenting the project and its goals, as well as an extensive social media campaign focused on spreading the messages of the initiative.

On December 16th and 17th, 2021, over 100 participants from the cross-border area between Serbia and BiH gathered at the virtual conference “Counting down to zero – Zero Waste Municipalities.” 18 lecturers from these two countries shared their extensive knowledge and experience with a range of participants – from green entrepreneurs to waste utility staff. The two-day event highlighted the key actions of the Zero Waste Municipalities programme to date, as well as shared information on the increasingly valued topics of Zero Waste and the circular economy.

The activities implemented through the Zero Waste Municipalities programme were accompanied by an extensive social media campaign and the creation of an online community for further discussion and dissemination of Zero Waste concepts. Through the project’s Facebook page and LinkedIn profile, as well as its official website, citizens can follow project activities and learn about the ideas it aims to implement. You can also join a virtual community of those interested in Zero Waste concepts. Through these various channels, the Zero Waste Municipality project has reached over 2 million people, including their 5,300 social media followers.


The immense scale of the challenge of waste, as well as its cross-cutting nature, means that without concerted action to improve waste management, sustainable development is not possible. This is especially clear in regions such as the Western Balkans, where countries face the dual challenges of being in urgent need of both economic growth and environmental stewardship. In the last decade, concepts of Zero Waste and the circular economy have made significant strides in conceptualizing waste management and providing the guidelines for a sustainable future. Zero Waste Municipalities is an inspiring example of how these concepts can be brought into practice in an effective manner. The success of the initiative can be attributed both to its strong theoretical basis on the concepts of Zero Waste and the circular economy, as well as its practical focus on engaging local stakeholders and highlighting the positive opportunities embedded in improved waste management. The initiative provides a strong foundation for the replication of such activities across the region and is a hopeful starting point for more ambitious Zero Waste initiatives in the Western Balkans.


CENER 21 would like to express its deepest gratitude to the Global Waste Cleaning Network for their invaluable support. Their unwavering dedication to promoting project results has facilitated the dissemination of information on exemplary practices in the field of waste management and circular economy. We truly appreciate their selfless efforts in advancing our shared goals.


[1] World Bank. “What a Waste 2.0: A global snapshot of solid waste management to 2050.”

[2] UNECE. 2018. Bosnia and Herzegovina Environmental Performance Reviews: Third edition.

[3] EEA. 2021. Municipal Waste Management in Western Balkan Countries – Country Profile: Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[4] EEA. 2021. Municipal Waste Management in Western Balkan Countries – Country Profile: Serbia.

[5] CENER21. 2021. “Zero Waste Municipalities.”

[6] The Balkan Forum. 2021. Circular Economy in the Western Balkan Region: Waste Management as a Challenge.

[7] Centre for Policy and Governance. 2022. Bosnia and Herzegovina Circular Economy White Paper.

[8] Republic of Serbia Ministry of Environmental Protection. 2020. Roadmap for a Circular Economy in Serbia.