Discovering a new paradigm for solid waste recycling by sharing fellowship and knowledge with public works officials in Slovakia and the Czech Republic

George Crombie
Director of Public Works
Town of Plymouth, Massachusetts
APWA Director-At-Large, Environmental Management

The Jennings Randolph International Fellowship was established by APWA in 1987 through the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute. The goal of APWA was:

  • To provide an opportunity for APWA members to broaden their knowledge and exchange experiences and information on trends and advances in public works, through contact with our international partners.
  • To promote friendship and understanding among public works staff on an international basis.

This past year I was notified by APWA that I had received a Fellowship in the honor of Senator Randolph to study solid waste techniques and exchange ideas with fellow public works officials in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Jennings Randolph International Fellowship was established in honor of Senator Jennings Randolph from West Virginia, who was known as the "Dean of Public Works Legislators." I heard Senator Randolph speak at an APWA Congress many years ago. I will never forget his enthusiasm and the pride he had for public works professionals and what they could accomplish. Senator Randolph stated that "Public works is a powerful instrument for understanding and peace."

Planning for this trip began in the winter of 2004. Joining Jackie and I on this trip would be fellowship winner Brad Kutzner, Assistant City Engineer in Poway, California and his wife, Susie, along with the Dean of APWA International Exchange Programs Geoff Greenough, Director of Public Works in Moncton, New Brunswick and his wife, Margo. Our goal was to meet up with public works officials in the City of Bratislava, Slovakia.

Jackie and I had flown to Zurich and were two hours late in getting into Vienna. Travel plans had been in flux until the day we had left, and we were not sure who would be waiting to pick us up in Vienna or if they would still be waiting for us. Sure enough, as we entered the lobby in a foreign land there was a large and familiar sign with the words "APWA." The gentleman who we would later call Joseph and who would escort us through Slovakia had a big smile on his face. So there we were, traveling in a foreign land through Austria and into Slovakia as strangers, and the only word we could both understand was "APWA." That is what you call public works fellowship.

We spent our first night in Slovakia in the City of Bratislava. The following morning we would meet up with Geoff, Margo, Brad and Susie to begin our journey across Slovakia to the Town of Michalovce. Special thanks goes to Peter Benes, President of the Slovakia Public Works Association, for his hospitality in Bratislava, and allowing Joseph to spend the week with us as our driver and guide. President Benes is responsible for public works operations in Bratislava, the largest city in Slovakia.

The space for this article does not allow complete detail of all of our activities, but I would like to hit on the key experiences and reflections from this wonderful experience.

A Tale of Two Countries
Both Slovakia and the Czech Republic had been under communism at one time. I have often thought about what defined communism, but was never sure. Traveling through these two countries and their cities and towns, you will visit one part of a city that has the most remarkable architecture and craftsmanship anywhere in the world. In stark contrast, in other parts of the same city you would see everything painted the same colors and large apartment buildings built out of concrete and deteriorating badly. Before communism came to these two countries there was tremendous pride in their architecture, craftsmanship, and heritage. Communism brought to both countries a meltdown of creativity and destruction to the infrastructure. What communism didn't do was take away the hope and pride of the people in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. While we were visiting both countries there was excitement in the air about joining the European Union and being able to compete in a free and open system once again.

The Children of Slovakia and Czech Republic
In the Town of Michalovce, Slovakia, we had the opportunity to be entertained by one of the best children's and young adult dance groups and musical assemblies that I have ever seen. The children were introduced by Ms. Slovakia and performed magnificently. Respect for culture, heritage, and the arts begin early in life, and I believe this foundation was critical in keeping these countries together during occupation by the communists.

Our gracious host in Michalovce was Milan Podzuban who was starting up a new recycling company. We had dinner one night with Milan and his beautiful family. One of his daughters presented us with neckties that she had made for us. Our interpreters in Slovakia were two recent college graduates who had just started up a language school. One lesson to learn from our European friends is that the children learn three or four different languages and understand how important international communication will be in the future. In the Czech Republic we met two wonderful students who were our interpreters and guides. They both were attending the university, and you could see their energy and excitement to learn and talk about their country and ours. Dr. Neuzil, the wife of George Neuzil, our host in the Czech Republic, gave our spouses a tour of a school in the Town of Olomouc. Jackie, Susie and Margo found the schools to be clean and orderly, the teachers doing a wonderful job teaching, the children attentive, and yes—the children were competing to see who could recycle the most waste.

Slovakia and Czech Republic Public Works Conferences
We were fortunate to attend public works conferences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. I had the opportunity to present a paper on the latest trends in solid waste operations in the United States. Brad Kutzner presented on managing construction projects, and Geoff Greenough spoke about APWA and our international partnerships. The conferences are similar to the APWA functions held in the United States and Canada. There are technical sessions, good food and drink, fellowship, and equipment exhibits.

A new solid waste truck being displayed at the Slovakia Public Works Conference in Michalovce, Slovakia.

I was impressed with the equipment that was on display. The quality was excellent, and the versatility of using one piece of equipment to do multiple tasks has a lot of merit in our operations. They demonstrated a solid waste truck that automatically washed out the trash can when it was finished dumping. Another piece of equipment performed the functions of a street sweeper in the summer and converted to a plow and sander in the winter. One creative difference is that when you tour the exhibits, each vendor has a bottle of sprits to share a toast. The exhibit area was always crowded for some reason.

In the small Town of Trebon, Czech Republic, a town famous for its spas, we signed a partnership between APWA and the Czech Republic Public Works Association. We exchanged gifts, toasted each respective country, and sang songs in Czech, American and French. We talked about hockey, elected officials, funding needs, and even Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl. Our world got smaller quickly.

APWA Board member George Crombie and his wife, Jackie, just outside the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic. Recycling containers along the streets make it convenient to recycle.

The Challenge for Slovakia and Czech Republic Public Works Officials
With the fall of communism in both countries and the joining of the European Union, both countries are struggling to rebuild their infrastructure. Many communities have private companies running their public works operations. George Neuzil, who attended our National Congress this year, is managing a private public works and recycling program.

In both countries we spent many hours with our peers talking about similar challenges to rebuild the infrastructure. Although our countries are thousands of miles away, the challenges are similar. We had the opportunity to attend a number of meetings with public works officials. One of the themes that I took away was their ability to appreciate the fact that the building of the communities' infrastructure is more than brick and mortar. Rich architecture, heritage, multimodal transportation, lighting standards, and environmental measures are essential elements to consider in the planning process of new infrastructure. One of the requirements of public works officials in the future, if it is not being practiced already, is to ensure that different disciplines work together on the development of infrastructure projects.

Recycling Domes for cans and plastic materials are located adjacent to many apartment buildings in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Discovering a New Paradigm for Managing Solid Waste
As stated, one of the great transformations that is taking place in Europe is the European Union. Countries across Europe are joining together to create a greater quality of life for all of their members.

One of the major cornerstones of this new Union is putting into place comprehensive environmental programs. The legislation that both Slovakia and the Czech Republic have approved to recycle solid waste could well be an example to adopt in the United States and Canada. These two countries are creating recycling programs that charge a fee to companies and importers of products that will eventually end up in the waste stream. The fee is based on the difficulty to recycle. The funds collected then go into funding recycling programs across their respective countries. If manufacturers choose to change their product to lessen the recycling burden, or set up programs to take used products back, they pay a lesser charge.

The key to this innovative legislation can be outlined into five major areas:

  1. The recycling programs are set up on a national basis allowing for consistency and incentives.
  2. Those who create the waste pay to have it recycled.
  3. Municipalities are compensated to recycle by those who create the waste.
  4. The economic benefits created by this new recycling industry are shared across the country.
  5. The entire country shares in the environmental benefits.

Why would this type of legislation make sense in the United States? In the early seventies most of North America began to recycle solid waste in earnest. New laws were passed requiring communities to separate waste, and a whole new recycling industry began. Public works officials across North America have revolutionized the way recycled waste is picked up and processed. The foundation to the recycling movement is to reuse and eliminate the continued mining of natural resources.

Recycling programs in North America have made significant progress since the early seventies. Despite the advancements that have been made in recycling, municipalities continue to be challenged on a number of fronts. Jurisdictions across the country have very different mandates as to recycling requirements. The burden to recycle the waste is borne by the local municipality; differing landfill tipping fees play a role in how much is recycled; there is little control on product development and its compatibility to be recycled; and market prices vary a great deal depending on region. Unlike the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act that are comprehensive National Environmental Programs, recycling programs have never reached this plateau.

Earlier this year, the National Solid Waste Association of North America discussed with the APWA Solid Waste Management Committee the idea of a National Recycling Program. The parties believe that recycling has now reached a level of diminishing returns without a comprehensive National Recycling Program, which would not only create a level playing field but would manage solid waste in a holistic manner.

In summary, it has only been a short time since both Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been free of communism and have moved forward as free nations. However, their age as free nations may have well given them the ability to think through problems in a holistic and creative manner. Their initiatives in creating a whole new paradigm for recycling may well be an example to North America on how we should manage the recycling of waste. We have much to learn from our friends in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The gardens that surround the Parliament building in Prague, Czech Republic.

We spent our last night in Prague having dinner in the Kampa Museum in the heart of Prague. Meda S. Mladek, who has spent her life fighting for freedom and the rights of all human beings, runs the museum. It was a true gift to have Meda join our table and share her experiences with us. The museum encouraged students from all backgrounds to create and explore new thoughts and ideas in the form of art. Out in the streets people were celebrating the coming of Easter and we could hear happy voices. Just decades ago, these opportunities would have been nonexistent without individuals like Meda S. Mladek.

George Neuzil's father and mother joined us for dinner. They had never before met Americans and Canadians, and we were as honored as they to meet one another.

That night we reflected back on our experiences of the previous two weeks, the friendships that we had made, the new ideas in public works that we had discovered, and the realization that our world is getting smaller all the time and how important it is for all of us to work together. The public works officials and their families that we met in Slovakia and the Czech Republic were wonderful human beings, opening their hearts to us, sharing their knowledge, and promoting friendship. We left with a tremendous respect for the people in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, just as they had for the United States and Canada. Senator Jennings Randolph was right when he said, "Public works is a powerful instrument for understanding and peace." The Jennings Randolph International Fellowship Program is a powerful tool in helping to make the world a better place.

George Crombie can be reached at (508) 830-4070 or at


How can you learn about another culture?
So, you're planning to travel to another country in the near future, and you would like to learn more about it and its people. Depending on the country, you can find much information in books, in videos, or on the Internet. But even those sources can be less than adequate. The lack of information regarding various cultures can, in fact, be a blessing, since knowledge of other cultures is better acquired by experience than by study. There is no substitute for being there. Using some of the following principles may help:

  1. To understand the subtleties of any culture, firsthand experience is necessary.
  2. Failure to understand another culture can create high levels of anxiety, and otherwise normal experiences may seem threatening.
  3. A good understanding of the language is needed if one is to best understand the culture. One can also learn much from their proverbs.
  4. There is a tendency to stereotype until extended contact with the other culture has been realized.
  5. Self-awareness of your own cultural identity often accompanies exposure to another culture.
  6. That which is logical to members of the other culture may seem totally illogical to you, the outsider.

Keep these things in mind, and you'll have a much better travel experience.

Cultural Proverbs:

"He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever." - Chinese Proverb

"Don't think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm." - Malayan Proverb

"A person who never travels believes his mother's cooking is the best in the world." - Kiganda Proverb