Poles are concerned about the environment

MOKRZYCKA Ekologia martwi i intryguje ale nie skłania do poświęceń LONG

Poles should change their habits and become more environmentally friendly. Otherwise even the best regulations and environmental programs may turn out to be ineffective in the fight against the flood of garbage and air pollution.

According to the financial framework of the “State Environmental Policy 2030”, Poland will spend approximately PLN72bn (EUR16.8bn) in the years 2018-2020, and PLN146bn in the years 2021-2025, on the implementation of environmental protection projects. The Ministry of the Environment is working on, among other things, new fees for companies that use plastic materials.

As part of the first large study on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted in 2015 at the United Nations by more than 190 countries from around the world, Eurostat presented detailed results concerning sustainable, environmentally friendly life in European cities. The study covered the period of 2012-2017. The average scores show that the situation is improving — the EU member states are processing more and more waste, the concentration of harmful substances in the air has fallen, and a lower percentage of the population suffers from noise. The number of people killed in road accidents has also decreased.

The air quality is bad, but there is less noise pollution

Poland has already made considerable progress in terms of recycling — according to data for 2017, it now processes 33.8 per cent of municipal waste, which is primarily “produced” by households (excluding the industry). However, the sizeable improvement in this regard is primarily due to the very low base — in 2012 the share of recycled waste in Poland was slightly above 10 per cent, while Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium had by then already reached the target of 50 per cent that Poland is only expected to achieve in 2020.

When it comes to air pollution, the conditions in Polish cities are highly unfavorable. According to the Eurostat, out of the 28 EU member states, only Bulgaria matches Poland in terms of the concentration of airborne particulate matter: both countries have recorded a result of 23.8 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The average in the EU is 14.1 µg/m3, while in Finland, which has the cleanest air, it does not exceed 5 µg/m3. On the bright side, Poland is relatively quiet, as only 12.4 per cent of residents indicate that they suffer due to noise. Meanwhile, in the highly industrialized Germany, more than 26 per cent of the population complain about noise.

Poles are well aware of the existing threats to natural environment. In the survey conducted in May 2019 by the company IQS, the climate crisis was identified as a serious problem by 53 per cent of Polish citizens. Additionally, 45 per cent of the respondents had noticed a deterioration of the environmental conditions in their own place of residence. According to respondents, the blame lies not only with the heavy industry, but also with sectors that use plastics on a massive scale: the production of cosmetics, clothes, as well as beverages, juices and water. According to data presented by Deloitte, the demand for plastics reaches 3.5 million tons per year in Poland alone. The plastic-based industry in Poland includes 8 thousand companies which employ 160 thousand people and generates PLN80bn in annual turnover.

For the time being, Poland is at a stage where citizens are theoretically concerned about the state of the environment, but not enough in order to make personal sacrifices. On the one side, there are the eager neophytes of the green ideology, who do their laundry using soapnut shells as a detergent, and who try to compost waste in the under-sink cabinets in their tiny apartments. On the other hand, there are the ignorant or naive people who seem to believe that paying PLN22 for garbage collection solves the problem, and who can’t even be bothered to throw glass bottles into a separate container.

The dark side of the Moon

Indeed, Poles are increasingly willing to carry their groceries in reusable shopping bags, and it is now trendy to use old lace-net curtains in order to make your own reusable bags for the vegetables that are sold by weight. Poland is also among the European leaders in terms of the use of collective transport. However, for the time being, this is probably due to the financial situation of the average Pole, and the lower number of cars in the households, rather than any ecological concerns. Among the top five countries with the highest share of collective transport modes, only Austria is not a formerly Communist country.

Let’s take a look at an industry referenced in the study conducted by IQS: the production of beverages. Poles want to be environmentally friendly, but the sales of bottled water are growing. While in 2016, Poles spent a total of PLN4.5bn on bottled water, this year these expenditures could amount to PLN5.5bn. The annual rate of increase exceeds PLN300m. According to the research company GfK, the average household buys almost 220 liters of bottled water per year. So even though Poles are aware of the islands of plastic debris floating in the ocean, they are not willing to give up on the convenience. And after all, in many Polish cities — if not in most of them — tap water is perfectly suitable for drinking. During a briefing held on the occasion of the World Water Day, Jarosław Pinkas, the Chief Sanitary Inspector, pointed out that the quality of 99.7 per cent of the water supplied to homes fully complies with the requirements of the law. Meanwhile, as Sylwia Majcher pointed out in her material, tap water is 200 times cheaper than the bottled one: “One liter of tap water costs PLN0.01 in Warsaw, but at the store you have to pay about PLN2 for the same amount. For the price of a 1.5-liter bottle we get about 300 liters of tap water”. Poles are not alone in this respect — the inhabitants of the European Union spend a total of EUR39bn on bottled water each year.

In the study carried out by IQS, 79 per cent of the surveyed Poles declared that they felt they were being unfairly burdened with the responsibility for the garbage and the costs associated with waste segregation. Some 85 per cent of the respondents blamed manufacturers for the ubiquitous presence of plastics, while 46 per cent claimed that manufacturers should be forced to completely eliminate such packaging. For the time being, only some large retail chains have responded by allowing customers to put the purchased produce into their own packaging. Many Poles still remember a time when milk or beer was supplied in reusable glass bottles. As many as 57 per cent of the respondents surveyed by IQS support a requirement for stores to once again unconditionally accept used glass packaging without asking for receipts. However, on the other hand, the analysts at IQS note that “Poles are not overly concerned about sustainable development. Knowledge of these concepts is scant. What matters for most people is satisfying their own needs, and the problems they face. At the same time there is a growing awareness that the efforts to meet one’s needs should be accompanied by some common sense and responsibility”.

The lack of reflection on sustainable development goes hand in hand with a general unwillingness to admit that humans are responsible for the mass “production” of waste. We do not want to admit that this is simply our garbage. For many people this is yet another area that should be taken care of by the broadly defined “state” — the national government, the local government, or anyone else, as long as they pay for it.

The other side of the market

Soon Poles may be up for a greater price shock. In accordance with EU rules introducing higher targets for the recycling of municipal waste and packaging waste, Poland should be recycling 50 per cent of its waste by 2020, and as much as 65 per cent by 2035. The rules also impose a requirement to comply with the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle on the manufacturers of products sold in packaging — the companies will be required to cover a part of the costs of selective collection and preparation of waste for recycling. The new law leaves a loophole for beverage producers: by 2023 all plastic bottles will have to incorporate a minimum of 25 per cent of recycled material, and by 2030 this share will reach 30 per cent.

The Polish Ministry of the Environment is currently working on the domestic rules of the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme. According to official announcements, the relevant legislation is supposed to appear in 2020. Costly sacrifices will be required in order to reach the EU target according to which 60 per cent of municipal waste (from households and public administration units) is to be recycled and prepared for reuse by 2030. It has already been announced by the biggest cities that prices for garbage collection will increase, in many places even twofold or more.

The Polish Ministry of the Environment indicated that “it’s examining different variants for the introduction of fees, which would be paid by entities upon the placement of packaged products on the market”. “These rules will constitute a serious blow and a cost shock, which could mean bankruptcy for small and medium-sized enterprises. Such a cost shock may also prove to be unacceptable for the consumers,” said Magdalena Dziczek, a member of the board of the Union of Packaging Industry and Packed Products Employers EKO-PAK.

How will this translate into the final price of a single product? No one wants to openly admit that things will get more expensive. But that is exactly what is going to happen. Such a radical change in the regulations will require huge investments on the part of the producers. According to a report prepared by PwC, in just one sector — the production of non-alcoholic beverages — it will be necessary to introduce changes in approximately 1,350 bottling lines throughout the EU, which could cost between EUR2.7bn and as much as EUR8.7bn.

The shrinking financing

According to Statistics Poland (GUS), in 2017 (the latest available data) expenditures on environmental protection were PLN29bn, or 1.5 per cent of GDP. Moreover, as noted by the authors of the draft “State Environmental Policy 2030”, they have exhibited a steady decline in relation to GDP, falling from 4.4 per cent in 2000. The aforementioned amount comprises expenditures in seven different sectors: wastewater management and water protection, air and climate protection, waste management, protection of biodiversity and landscape diversity, reduction of noise and vibration, protection of soils as well as groundwater and surface water, and research and development activities. The expenditures on fixed assets serving the purpose of environmental protection alone increased to approximately PLN6.8bn in 2017 (compared with PLN6.5bn in 2016), which accounts for 0.34 per cent of GDP (compared with 0.35 per cent in 2016). The level of spending on environmental protection in Poland is among the lowest in the EU.

Based on guidelines from the Ministry of Investment and Development, the Ministry of the Environment has prepared a financial framework for the implementation of environmental protection projects. According to estimates, the value of these projects will reach approximately PLN72bn in the years 2018-2020 and PLN146bn in the years 2021-2025. These amounts include spending from the national budget, the local government budgets, as well as EU funds and private funds. The structure of spending on environmental protection in Poland is dominated by households — in 2017 their share amounted to approximately 66 per cent. Meanwhile, the share of private entities in the outlays on fixed assets serving the purpose of environmental protection and water management is around 50 per cent (data of Statistics Poland).

The authors of the draft “State Environmental Policy” emphasize that the tasks of the public sector, which have thus far been largely implemented with co-financing from the EU, will have to be financed from domestic funds. The reason is the expected reduction in the funds available for Poland under the Cohesion Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy in the 2021-2027 EU financial framework.

At the same time, the authors are pointing out three factors that will further limit the access to sources of funding in this area:

  • Three the richest Polish voivodeships are exceeding the threshold of GDP per capita below 75 per cent of the EU average, so it will lead to an inflow reduction of EU funds.
  • Increasing preference for loans instead of grants in the next EU financial framework.
  • Growing indebtedness of local governments, which will hinder or even prevent the use of EU funds that require co-financing.

Therefore, in addition to searching for new sources of financing, we should put greater emphasis on environmental education, including the promotion of desired behaviors relating to sustainable consumption and changing the habits of Polish citizens. If we don’t take a closer look at how we live on a daily basis, then who will do that for us?

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