While in the 1970s of the 20th century we extracted about 20 billion tonnes of natural resources per year, at the beginning of this decade we already extracted 70-80 billion tonnes. An increase in the global population will double the current quantities in 2050.

“This is no longer just a problem of human impact on the natural environment, but also an economic problem related to geopolitical security and stability of supplies,” assures Bartłomiej Kozek from the UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre, an organisation carrying out the mission of the United Nations Environment Programme in Poland, indicating, among other things, the availability of rare earth elements which are used more and more widely.

Industry, among others, should be involved in the process of restoring them for re-use. “Such actions are cost-effective. New jobs are created and companies save money as a result of moving to a closed production cycle,” Kozek explains. In Scotland, beer and whiskey producers and the fishing industry can save between £500 million and £800 million a year.

Business awaits a road map

In Poland, there is still no indication of the direction which industry is to follow on its way to a closed-loop economy (hereinafter referred to as circular economy). Such a road map is to be outlined in a document prepared jointly with other ministries by the Ministry of Enterprise and Technology (MPiT). Its last version was published in January.

As Łukasz Sosnowski, the main specialist in the department of green economy of the ministry, explains, consultations lasting several months resulted from the necessity to carry out a multithreaded analysis of the doubts and conclusions raised. “The latest version will be published in the coming weeks. It is planned that it will be adopted by the Council of Ministers as soon as possible,” adds Sosnowski.

According to engineer Tomasz Szczygielski, PhD from the Institute of Applied Research of the Warsaw University of Technology, the January version of the document aptly outlines the areas and diagnoses the problems that need to be addressed. However, we lack the necessary instruments. “One cannot see how to achieve a symbiosis in the economy between entities producing products from waste, e.g. from the power industry, and those who are to use them, e.g. in infrastructure construction. There are no regulations enabling the prevention of waste generation by recycling it to products at the earliest possible stage,” Szczygielski enumerates.

It turns out that not all business guidelines were included in the document. In the case of JSW – as explained by Ewa Wojakowska, the main specialist of the environmental protection team in the company – on the one hand, the postulate to create a catalogue of anthropogenic raw materials and a list of companies which have a demand for them was partially taken into account, the use of aggregates, e.g. in the construction industry, was indicated, as well as actions were proposed regarding legislative changes in this area. There was no analysis of the post-mining areas in the context of restoring their original value after revitalization and recultivation.

Irena Pichola, partner from Deloitte Advisory and leader of the sustainable development team, would like to see concrete projects in the roadmap, the effects of which can then be measured. She sets Finland as an example, which wants to be the leader in the implementation of circular economy. “There, the roadmap was created four years ago and the consultation process revolved around the planning of specific actions. The same path was followed by Bulgaria, focusing on the analysis of projects,” says Pichola. Deloitte will prepare a report on circular economy in Poland for the climate summit in Katowice (COP24). It will indicate the areas on which the state and entities operating on the Vistula should focus.

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It may take years to implement tasks from different areas signalled in the roadmap. Therefore, there is a fear that, as a country with large infrastructural projects underway, we will not take advantage of the benefits of circular economy “The regulations are necessary for us to introduce circular economy instead of remaining on the stage of waste recycling,” emphasizes Szczygielski.

Tools and cooperation

The key to success is the cooperation between business representatives, public administration and consumers. “Creation of infrastructure supporting waste segregation and recycling, as well as places where rarely used products are exchanged or shared must begin to function in our consciousness not only as an idea, but also as a daily practice. Manufacturers, in turn, should think about every stage of a product’s life cycle and start designing it with this in mind,” advises Anna Sapota, vice-president of CP Recycling Packaging Recovery Organization. The industry is doing well. In 2015, 58% of packaging waste and 82% of cans were recycled. This is due to the value of aluminium, for which you receive a small remuneration (about 5 groszy per can).

But not everyone can boast of successes. For example, only 10% of the 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging placed on the market every year is recycled, as much as 40% of it ends up in landfill and 32% is released into the environment. “There are success stories where there is money behind recycling. We also find them in projects of competing companies, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Nestlé and Żywiec Zdrój, which, thanks to the „Act with imPET” campaign, want to increase the amount of recovered material by several percent,” explains Pichola.

Veolia intends to increase the recycling of PET packaging worldwide. The strategy of the Polish company is to further develop its activities in the industrial waste sector. The company is already recovering fly ash and slag from hard coal incineration and co-incineration with biomass, recycling of construction waste and aggregates used to produce concrete mixes.

Experts are convinced that others will also meet the requirements and goals of circular economy if they can base their business plans on a stable legislative ecosystem. “If we want to stimulate investments in recycling, companies and banks need to know where they stand,” Sapota says. In her opinion, the extended producer responsibility system is not effective in our country and needs to be adapted to EU directives. The industry –  remembering the so-called waste revolution –  postulates evolutionary introduction of changes. “The basis is the creation of a fully operational waste database and digitalization of the process. Without this, it is difficult to say who should contribute to the financing of the system and to what extent,” says Sapot.

The Ministry of the Environment undertakes to present such a base by January 2020. “This will make it possible to verify the recycling capacity of the installation against the actual data of entrepreneurs,” adds Magda Gosk, Director of the Waste Management Department at the Ministry of the Environment. Although she admits that the creation of a framework for the development of circular economy is not yet complete, the guidelines are already taken into account in the National Waste Management Plan 2022 or in the Act on waste. The roadmap will only strengthen this direction.

Gosk argues that the regulations already allow entrepreneurs to use various tools to obtain raw materials from the market. For example, breweries use a deposit system for reusable bottles. “However, not everyone can see the benefits. That’s why different tools have to be allowed,” says Gosk.

The Ministry of the Environment analyses both versions of the deposit system, as well as the differentiation of the product fee. It is also important to apply a hierarchy of waste management methods with an emphasis on prevention and recycling. Incineration is not only a last resort, but also an alternative to landfill.

Goal: waste reuse

To put it shortly, priority should be given to the reuse of the product, i.e. the so-called closing of the loop. While the industry is prepared for the challenges posed by circular economy, potential users of raw materials are not always willing to use them. “Since coal is the basis for energy generation in the country, the regulations should prioritize the use of residues of energy processes, e.g. in infrastructural projects,” postulates Szczygielski.

Wojakowska from JSW admits that the use of aggregates produced with the approval of the building industry was high around 2008-2010, when we were building roads for Euro 2012. Now, orders have fallen. Therefore, she considers it justified to introduce such an element into the legislation.

Veolia, on the other hand, sees great potential in the recovery of polypropylene and polyethylene for the production of liquid hydrocarbons in depolymerisation processes. “They can be reused by refineries to produce fuels or used for energy purposes,” explained Norbert Skibiński, Development Director, Veolia’s waste business line.

However, there is no shortage of positive examples. And without legislative coercion. The Polish Crop Protection Association (PSOR) set up a comprehensive system for the collection of plant protection product packaging as early as 14 years ago. The starting point was a chain of about 4,000 agricultural shops that sell pesticides. “Farmers have a statutory obligation to return packaging of plant protection products. Our task was to motivate them and make this obligation easier for them. Farmers would not return these packages if they had to bear additional costs. That is why, as an industry, we bear the cost of their collection and reuse,” explains Marcin Mucha, director of PSOR. Today, the collection reaches about 50 percent, of which more than 80 percent of the packaging is recycled and reclaimed for energy. Plant protection product packaging is used to build casing pipes for fibre optics.

Not only companies, but also municipalities see the potential of circular economy. Three of them (Wieluń, Tuczno and Łukowica) are taking part in a pilot project of the Ministry of the Environment. The aim is to develop good practices in the field of circular economy.

“I hope that involvement in such business initiatives and piloting them will inspire thousands of municipalities and small communities to abandon the linear model of raw materials management,” argued Pichola.  “We need to look for new solutions and talk about cooperation within clusters of enterprises from various branches,” Kozek said. Such eco-cities already exist e.g. in Denmark.

Our local self-governments, which are in charge of waste management, have decided to take on this challenge due to, among other things, smog. After all, in many places waste disappears in domestic furnaces and we all inhale harmful substances from waste combustion.

“Circuit economy doesn’t like incineration plants. However, out of 12 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in Poland, approx. 2-3 million tonnes is a residual fraction (the so-called pre-RDF), which cannot be stored or further recovered. Only this waste should go to a thermal processing installation with electricity and heat recovery,” says Skibiński. Veolia wants to generate heat from this waste in small heat plants operating for the needs of local networks. Veolia is trying to obtain environmental decisions for projects in Zamość and Wągrowiec.

The MPIT representative noted that the roadmap should not be too detailed in order to cover all the elements of circular economy. This will be the domain of individual activities undertaken within the framework of circular economy. However, a few elements will be taken into account after consultations. It concerns the transposition of activities related to the provisions on extended producer responsibility, financing of circular economy in the field of research and development within the National Intelligent Specialisation in circular economy (from the combination of waste, raw materials and water specialisation). The Ministry of Science and Technology also wants to count the effects of the implementation of circular economy, i.e. its positive measurable effects on the economy and society.