Racing to meet an EU recycling target, the waste market in Poland is booming. But Warsaw is increasingly fed up with illegally imported foreign waste, much of it from the UK.
Poland has become a dumping ground for UK plastic waste and a so-called trash mafia has allegedly grown up to manage its illegal incineration.
Poland's Deputy Minister of the Environment, Slawomir Mazurek, promised recently that the government would come down hard on illegal incineration of imported plastic waste.
Poland's 10 energy-from-waste plants, he said, can handle domestic waste and imports from the Czech Republic, Italy and the UK, but there is little sector-wide regulation of waste quality and illegal incineration is widespread.
The European Commission said in 2018, enforcement is the responsibility of member states. As part of the EU's Circular Economy Package, adopted in 2018, the responsibility of producers for their products will be extended, which means companies will have to better manage their products and their packaging after they've been used by consumers.
But the problem remains.
Poland's relative self-regulatory backwardness was highlighted vividly in 2018 when over 60 fires started in landfills nationwide in May. The biggest lasted two days and covered the town of Zgierz, in central Poland, in smoke, where fragments of burnt waste originally from the UK were found.
In January 2018, China introduced an import ban on 24 types of solid waste and as a result other countries were targeted by shippers of illegal waste. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, India and Poland reportedly took up the slack.
Greenpeace has accused Western countries of exploiting poorer nations with inadequate regulatory frameworks. Western companies are prepared to pay to dispose of trash and companies in poorer nations accept the contracts. The trash is, however, often incorrectly labeled.
UK exporters, among others, make their money by charging retailers and manufacturers a fluctuating tonnage rate for plastic waste recovery notes, called Perns, which they can then show to the government to prove they are contributing to recycling. But only 9% of the world's plastic ends up being recycled, National Geographic reported in 2017.
"For the first world, it makes them feel good about their waste supposedly being recycled, but in reality it ends up in countries that cannot deal with the waste," Beau Baconguis, a plastics campaigner at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Poland: Europe's China?
China had for years been the largest dumping ground for plastics, receiving 600,000 tons of imported plastic waste a month at its height in 2016.The UK annually sends to Poland 12,000 tonnes of recyclable plastic. Since 2002, the amount of UK waste sent overseas to countries including China, Turkey, Malaysia and Poland has increased sixfold.
After China called a halt in 2018, Poland soon became the sixth largest recipient of UK waste in the world and the second largest inside the EU, behind the Netherlands.
In 2018, the European Commission said Poland was one of 14 EU countries at risk of not meeting the EU's 2020 recycling target of 50%. According to Eurostat, Poland recycled 33.8% of its municipal waste in 2017, compared to the average of 46.4% across the bloc.
A burning issue
Karol Wojcik from the Polish Association of Waste Management Employers says the problem is the lack of a minimum rate for plastic recycling, which means that local authorities are ready to sell to the company offering the lowest price.
He believes that setting a minimum cost for recyclable plastic waste would remove the temptation to sell to the "waste mafia."
"We discovered in Poland that a waste economy organized on only liberal economic principles doesn't work effectively enough. In Poland, the unseen hand of the market has caused not high enough levels of collecting and recycling, but very visible fires," said Slawomir Brzozek from Poland-based Our Earth Foundation.
It's a dirty business
In April, police from Krakow, Katowice and Czestochowa arrested 15 people associated with the "waste mafia." Investigators said they had evidence they had illegally stored dangerous waste, including in inactive mines or near housing estates.
Investigators revealed 2,452 tons of illegally stored waste, the disposal cost of which they said could amount to almost 8 million zlotys (€1.9 million, $2.2 million).
"It's about huge amounts of toxic waste. The method of their storage posed a real threat to life and health and the natural environment," said the spokesman for the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice, Waldemar Lubniewski.
According to police officers from the provincial headquarters in Katowice, three criminal gangs rented warehouses in various localities throughout the country. The originator of the whole procedure, according to the Malopolska police, was a 52-year-old businessman from Krakow.
Six trials related to illegal landfill in Poland are ongoing. "Some cases may be of an international nature," Ewa Bialik, spokesman for the National Public Prosecutor's Office, said. So far 47 people have been charged as part of the investigations, and 28 of them are still in custody.
Three British waste disposal companies are also under investigation by the UK's Environment Agency (EA) for sending 1,000 tons of falsely labelled recyclable waste to Poland.The EA said they couldn't be named for legal reasons. EA chief Sir James Bevan warned two years ago that waste crime was becoming "the new narcotics," costing Britain 1 billion pounds (€1.1 billion, $1.2 billion) a year.