Helping Serbian mining clean up

Could microorganisms help clean up toxic waste and increase Serbia’s ability to exploit mineral resources?

In December 2018, McGill professor Tomislav Friščić led a green chemistry workshop in Belgrade that drew over 30 participants from academia, industry, journalism, education and government. The attendees came from Croatia (where Friščić earned his undergraduate degree) and Bosnia, as well as Serbia.

“Every session involved pretty heavy discussions,” Friščić said. “People in academia do research and propose solutions and then people from industry and government provide a completely different perspective, so it’s a complicated situation. There is no one-size-fits all solution to going greener.”

In Serbia, one of the major environmental issues is pollution caused by the mining industry. During the workshop, there was a lot of discussion about using microorganisms to clean up the landscape and to enhance the separation and exploitation of mineral resources such as copper, lead or zinc.

For Srđjan Sokolović, an expert in chemical waste who works in the Serbian oil sector, the biggest challenge following the 1991 civil war is simply keeping industry operating in any form. “Until the civil war we had a strong industry, in a Yugoslavian market which consisted of 23 million people. Now most industry has been sold or closed and markets of the independent ex-Yugoslavian states are much smaller. If you develop something new and green, the biggest problem would be how to place this kind of product on small and poor markets. It wouldn`t matter whether the product is green or not.”

Support for clean technology

Another issue that participants and trainers highlighted was the crucial role of governmental and international support for clean technology. In South Africa and in Croatia, where there were government and EU incentives for research in sustainability, the opportunities for green initiatives were very different from those in Colombia and Serbia, where there was little support. In some cases, it appears that the impediments to more sustainable ways of doing business were not just economic, geologic and social – but political, as well.

“There was a need not only to introduce new technologies, but also to encourage their use. It was not a workshop where everyone just said, ‘Yes, this is great, we should all go green’, it was almost, if you wish, a debate club of some sort. We would engage in six hours of discussion around informative slides. Then we went for coffee and lunch of and just kept talking,” said Professor Friščić. “And over the space of the five days, after much discussion, we came to have a clearer grasp of the technological and economic opportunities that existed in the region, and how best to capitalize on them. This enabled us as a group to understand and overcome differences, leaving room for compromise and change. It was a terribly exciting and constructive environment. I found it thrilling.”