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Thousands of tons of waste are dumped in Poland every year, much of it from Germany. But Poland also has problems with its own waste disposal and its environment is suffering as a result.
Gravel pits, fields, forests, roadsides and old warehouses are just some of the dumping grounds in Poland for waste that largely comes from Germany.
Poland imports thousands of tons of garbage from abroad and each year the burden grows. Great Britain, Italy and Austria are among the nations sending their waste to Poland. But in terms of volume, they are well behind Germany, which alone accounts for 70% of Polish waste imports.
According to Germany's Left Party (Die Linke), the country exported some 250,000 tons of waste to Poland in 2018.
Added to this is undetected waste such as paper or plastic that can be transferred within the EU without a reporting requirement, meaning quantities are not registered.
Moreover, operators often don't have a permit to accept or recycle the type of waste they receive, meaning it "often got here illegally," said Beata Merenda of the Lower Silesian Inspection Authority for Environmental Protection, which controls imported waste around Wroclaw in the west of Poland.
"We are the waste dump of Europe," said Piotr Barczak of Zero Waste, a Polish environmental organization.
While recyclable material can be traded freely within the EU with a permit, the parties involved in the illegal waste business know how to trick the system, explains Merenda.
"For example, they declare it as plastic waste when in reality it is household waste or non-functional old vehicles that are being transported," she said.
It is hard to estimate just how many thousands of tons make it across the border unnoticed or under false labels. Merenda says that of about 20 spot checks her agency carried out in 2019, 14 cases uncovered illegal shipments of sludge, medical waste and unsorted household waste into Poland.
German companies can halve their disposal costs if they export their waste to Poland, according to Merenda. And some Poles are happy to take it.
It's a lucrative business for both sides, even if they are breaking the law, says Grzegorz Wielgosniski, an environmental engineer at the Lodz University of Technology. Describing the dirty business of waste dumping in Poland, he explains how a Polish company might offer to take plastic from a German operator and obtain a permit that says it will recycle the waste.
"But apart from a plot of land and maybe an excavator for unloading waste, this company has nothing that is needed for further recycling," Wielgosniski said. "Whether there is a facility for this, the responsible authority has not checked, but it has issued the permit nonetheless. In such a case, the waste is usually simply burned."
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Instead of utilizing modern waste incineration plants and technologies, mountains of waste are sometimes set alight to save money. As much of the waste contains harmful substances and chemicals, this has negative consequences for both people and the environment.
Piotr Barczak of Zero Waste criticizes the Polish government for not doing enough to fight waste management crime. Too many permits are issued and controls are too lax, he says. He is calling for tougher penalties and would like to see the German and Polish environmental authorities cooperate much more closely.
He also wants German companies to monitor where their waste is going, and to ascertain what actually happens to it in Poland. "[But] that they don't really control it and just turn a blind eye," Barczak said.
Polish ecologists are appealing to the government to ban the import of waste from abroad because Poland can no longer even process its own waste.
The country lacks recycling and disposal facilities, says Barczak, who is critical of cross-border waste transfers in general. "Those who produced the waste should take responsibility for its disposal and not shift that responsibility to poorer countries where the cost of disposal is lower, such as in Poland," he said.
The ecologist fears, however, as long as prices are lower in Poland, the dirty business of waste will continue to boom.