By Maria Wilczek
Waste management has become an increasingly complicated and costly proposition for Poles this year, with the introduction of mandatory segregation and ballooning prices of disposal. Yet much of these changes aim to bring an inefficient system into line with EU laws and standards.
According to the EU’s 2019 environmental review, Poland generated 315 kg of municipal waste per inhabitant in 2017, which is well below the EU average of 487 kg per person. Of that, 34% is recycled, which in turn is below the EU average of 46%.
In July 2020, the EU’s waste management directive comes into effect, with countries required to recycle at least 55% of municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035. The directive also requires putting a cap on landfill disposal and improving extended producer responsibility schemes.
Poland needs to catch up fast, and is doing so with an expedited set of reforms.
As of 2020, Poles have to sort their rubbish into five separate waste containers, following a common set of rules for the entire country.
Every city in Poland is obliged to recover half of its municipal waste through recycling. To encourage its residents to adhere to the rules, local governments can levy hefty fines – between doubling and quadrupling the disposal fee – on those who fail to sort their waste.
“Recycling is only possible when the separated fractions of waste are clean,” Marek Goleń from the Warsaw School of Economics told TVN24 BiS, “Even one percent of contamination (…) causes the value of the product to fall below zero. And that means that there is no incentive” to recycle it.
Many have reportedly found the system baffling. “The fact that I have to go online all the time to check whether a specific piece of rubbish should go in the brown or grey bin shows that there is something wrong with the system,” wrote one reader to Gazeta.pl.
According to Onet, a news site, three quarters of the communal waste in Warsaw is still mixed up or incorrectly sorted. The Ministry of Environment earlier estimated that over six million Poles may face an elevated fine, reported TVN24 BiS.
In an October survey, just 15% of Poles said they know how to sort waste correctly, while only 58% said it makes sense to do so, according to the website Portal Komunalny.
“It is atonement for a lack of prior education. We did not convince people why sorting makes sense. That was a failure,” Michał Dąbrowski, who heads the Polish Chamber of Waste Management (PIGO), an association of businesses, told Notes from Poland.
To help befuddled consumers, an online application has been launched to help sort waste correctly. There have also been reports of bins at housing cooperatives being locked up for most of the day, with only brief windows for rubbish disposal under the supervision of a clerk, to stop sloppy sorters from costing the entire cooperative a fine.
Rising disposal prices
Rubbish disposal prices have ballooned in Poland over recent years. This month, fees have jumped again to 94 zloty for single-family homes and 65 zloty for apartments in Warsaw.
Cities and communes have different ways of calculating fees. Most often there is a fixed fee per house, but in several big cities many residents are not officially registered. To account for variations in waste produced in each flat, Gdańsk charges residents per square metre, while in nearby Sopot and Kołobrzeg fees are proportional to water usage.
Experts trace the hikes back to the onset of Poland’s “rubbish revolution” in 2011, when waste management was handed over to local governments. Communes began competing on prices as local officials sought to offer their residents the best deal.
This led to an expansion of the grey sector for waste disposal, with widespread illegal dumping. Prices dropped temporarily. In September 2018, following a series of waste fires, the law was changed to crack down on illegal landfilling and dumping waste in forests.
“It was cheaper in the first years after the change,” said Dąbrowski, “but it turned out that it was the prices which were being pulled down, but not the [actual] costs.”
Prices began to creep back up, pushed further by rising energy prices and a notable recent raise in the minimum wage. Further increases are expected as local governments renegotiate agreements with waste collection and disposal companies, especially given the costly new segregation requirements.
Dąbrowski added that when local governments took over waste disposal, and began building disposal facilities, they “chose to build mechanical-biological waste treatment plants”, which “produce little waste for reuse and recycling”. As a result, little of the waste could be effectively reused and monetised.
One other element propping up prices comes from the EU’s collective efforts to move away from landfills (42% of waste treatment in Poland in 2016, but still well above the EU average of 24%), with Poland progressively raising landfill rates to discourage use.
This January, the fee has jumped again. From 115 zloty per tonne in 2013, it had risen to 170 zloty in 2019, and has now soared to 270 zloty.
Higher fees – less waste?
One other bottleneck has been Poland’s slow introduction of producer responsibility schemes, finally set to change this year.
Rubbish collection is paid for through a mixture of rubbish disposal fees, subsidies, revenue from sales of recycled materials and producer responsibility fees. While up till now the share of the latter three has remained low – putting pressure on disposal fees – corporate responsibility fees may soon rise.
The Polish Ministry of Environment is currently working on a proposal to raise EPR (extended producer responsibility) fees, in accordance with the EU directive, which says that the producer’s responsibility for a product should be extended to the end of its life cycle.
“The new system should incentivise producers to design products and packaging in a way which prevents excessive waste and increases their fitness for recycling,” said a ministry spokesman.
“Today EPR [fees] should amount to 2-3 billion zloty a year, while only around 100 million is being paid,” noted Dąbrowski. He believes that shifting the burden to producers, and hence to consumers, is fairer, because it is proportional to the amount of waste they make.
As producers and consumers adjust to the new prices of rubbish, ultimately they may find themselves making less of it.
Main image credit: RitaE/Pixabay
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.