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Circular Economy in Kazakhstan: How the Government Might Be on the Verge of Committing a Mistake

Photo from UNECE


Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, is now a fervent commercial centre. With the new Belt and Road initiative, the ambitious Chinese project involving investments in the infrastructure of more than 150 countries, Almaty will become an important stop-over of this new Silk Road. Therefore, it is likely that the city will see a significant expansion as it will become a crucial trade hub between Europe and Asia.

Since economic growth is strongly linked to increased generation of waste and pollution (Sjöström & Östblom, 2009), it is no surprise that the municipality of Almaty is investing in improving the city’s resource management system. In 2019, Almaty became the first city in Central Asia to complete a metabolic analysis of its urban system, which aims to map out all the resources employed within the city by tracing their whole life cycle from their origin to their usage and disposal. This method of analysis, also called Material Flow Analysis (MFA), can be performed to better understand how to improve the circularity of a system and, consequently, reduce the amount of waste and pollution generated.

Thus, it is clear that Kazakhstan is becoming an example of circularity in Central Asia, demonstrated by the innovative solution implemented by the municipality of Almaty. The Kazakhstani government has significantly invested in infrastructure to increase the efficiency and sustainability of its WMS. However, this article argues that the Kazakhstani government should invest more in education to see concrete results in waste recycling and generation levels. In particular, it is argued that when the population has not received practical information on waste management, such as how to sort waste or where the waste recipient facilities are situated, citizens will not dispose of waste correctly. Thus, the government will see no significant increase in the volume of recycled waste.

Almaty: The Circular Capital of Central Asia

To better understand the role of a MFA in the transition to a circular system, it is necessary to define the circular economy. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the concept of circular economy is based on three principles: (1) eliminate waste and pollution, (2) circulate products and materials, and (3) regenerate nature. In an ideal circular system, no material is wasted; everything is reused, repaired and recycled. However, the first step is to trace their life cycle to understand how resources can be reemployed. In that sense, the MFA is the starting point for implementing a circular economy.

The Circular Economy Foundation published a detailed report titled “Circular Economy Opportunities in Almaty” (Hoogzaad et al., 2019, pp. 32-106) showing the result of Almaty’s metabolic analysis. The document illustrates how resources are used in different sectors, such as agriculture, construction and (manufacturing) industry. It also lists the initiatives implemented in the city to reduce waste and encourage local production of goods. For example, the company KazHemp started producing hemp near the city; this material can be employed to produce paper locally instead of importing it. Mushrooms are usually imported as well, but food companies like KazEcoFood LLC have started setting up their own mushroom production.

In addition to that, the report recommends the implementation of new solutions. For example, remanufacturing should be encouraged by creating remanufacturing hubs for vehicles. Remanufacturing requires good connectivity with remote markets. Therefore, the report explains that because the Belt and Road initiative will significantly improve the transport infrastructure, it could help position Almaty as a remanufacturing hub.

Inefficient Waste Management System and Lack of Educational Programs

However, there is still a lot to improve in terms of sustainability in Almaty and, more in general, in Kazakhstan. Until 2018, there were no recycling facilities in Almaty, and most of the city’s waste was disposed of in landfills (Inglezakis et al., 2018, p. 507). To solve these issues, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (2014) has launched The Program of Modernization of Municipal Solid Waste Management for the years 2014–2050. The Kazakhstani government has set improving WMSs as a priority for implementing the Green Economy Program (Inglezakis et al., 2018, p. 508). This program sets several goals in terms of energy efficiency, renewable energy and infrastructure modernisation that will accelerate Kazakhstan’s transition to a “green economy”.

After nine years since the program was launched, Zhidebekkyzy et al. (2023) tried to understand the current state of the transition toward a circular economy in Kazakhstan. The results of their analysis show that, despite the significant amount of funds the Kazakhstani government is allocating to environmental protection, there is little effect on the level of reuse and recycling of waste because the waste generation volume grows even faster (p. 27). But if the municipality of Almaty and the Republic of Kazakhstan are making so many efforts to make the economy more sustainable and improve the life quality of its citizens, what causes waste to grow at such a faster pace?

The authors of this analysis hypothesise that a lack of education and information in the population is what causes the amount of waste to grow exponentially. In a previous study, the same authors investigated the factors influencing pro-environmental behaviours in Kazakhstani households with an internet survey (Zhidebekkyzy et al., 2023). The results showed that 40 % of the participants did not know the location of eco-point facilities that receive certain types of waste for recycling, which highlights the necessity of educating the population on where to find waste management facilities (p. 47). Otherwise, even if the population is eager to dispose of their waste sustainably, they are not able to do it due to a lack of practical information.

Indeed, there is a general consensus in the literature that educating and informing the population can reduce waste and costs related to waste management (Hasan, 2004; Mofid-Nakhaee et al., 2020; Morar & Bucur, 2017). For example, according to Mofid-Nakhaee et al. (2020, p. 10), educating citizens with a system of reward and punishment is helpful in creating waste awareness in the population. However, in the Kazakhstani legal system, even though there are penalties for violating waste management regulations, there is a lack of enforcement due to the limited number of resources of the regulatory agencies (Zhidebekkyzy et al., 2023, p. 20). Nukusheva et al. (2023, pp. 9-11) explain that because of a lack of a state program informing the population about a rational system for the collection, disposal, and processing of municipal solid waste, legislative regulation cannot carry out adequate enforcement.

These findings shed light on the importance of providing information on recycling practices, such as how to carry out correct waste separation and the location of waste disposal infrastructures, to improve the efficiency and recycling rate of waste management systems. If the citizens are not provided with this knowledge, levels of waste recycled and reused will not increase. Despite the efforts of Almaty’s municipality and the Kazakhstani government, it is ultimately the people who make the difference. Nevertheless, Zhidebekkyzy et al. (2023, p. 25), referring to the report of the Bureau of National Statistics in the Republic of Kazakhstan, point out that 90 % of environmental protection expenses went to the industry, at the first place mining and quarrying (129.3 billion tenge), whereas only 700 million tenge were spent on education, information and communications altogether.

The lack of funding in education is also outlined in a quantitative study on the gaps in the Kazakhstani education system concerning sustainability (Yelubayeva et al., 2023, pp. 8-9). The results of the study revealed that, according to the majority of the students interviewed, the first two challenges in sustainability education were unequal access to quality and lack of funding. By investing more in education, the Kazakhstani government would see more awareness in their population regarding waste generation, and more attention would be dedicated to the disposal of waste. The result would be a decrease in the volume of waste generated and an increase in the volume of waste recycled and reused.


The aim of this article was to evaluate the state of Kazakhstan’s transition to a circular economy, with a focus on the challenges faced by the government in improving its waste management system. After introducing Almaty as an example of circularity in Central Asia, the article illustrated how, despite the significant efforts of the Kazakhstani government, several aspects of the national waste management system need improvement. In particular, it was shown how investing in the infrastructure is not enough to significantly influence the levels of waste reused and recycled. These investments need to be coupled with a comprehensive educational program with the aim of providing the population with the right tools to build pro-environmental behaviours.

Consequently, while standing as a pioneer of the ecological transition in Central Asia, the Kazakhstani government may be overlooking the final piece of the circular puzzle: its citizens. This may cause the government to make an expensive mistake by allocating more and more funding to improving infrastructure without seeing the desired results. At the same time, the amount of waste generated will keep growing, demanding more waste management facilities and, thus, investments. Investing in new infrastructure will produce results only when people are informed of the correct recycling practices and are aware of the amount of waste they produce.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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