Despite progress in recent years V4’s local circular economies are plagued by inefficient management of the biodegradable waste, legal or illegal landfills, threat of the incineration trap and approximative reporting.

By Pavol Szalai (EURACTIV Slovakia), Pavla Hosnedlová (EURACTIV Czech Republic), Edit Zgut (Political Capital), Pavlína and Karolina Zbytniewska (EURACTIV Poland)

Poland has trouble decreasing CO2 emissions, tackling air pollution and protecting its primeval forest. As a matter of fact, it has the worst results in the whole Visegrad Group which includes also the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

But when it comes to municipal waste management, Poland is Visegrad’s best performer and closest to the European normal. According to Eurostat’s most recent data from 2016, 44 percent of the Polish municipal waste is recycled, the EU average being 46 percent. The Czechs and Hungarians are roughly 10 percentage points behind, the Slovaks are at 23 percent. The Poles have also made the biggest progress among the V4 since their EU accession: between 2005 and 2016, they improved by 38 percentage points.

But Poland’s exceptional performance on the paper pales when confronted with the situation on the ground. Its problems are also those of the whole V4: inefficient management of the biodegradable waste, legal or illegal landfills, threat of the incineration trap and approximative reporting. In Eurostat’s data, contrary to the other V4 countries, Poland’s statistics have a superscript: “e” for estimate.

The Visegrad countries will struggle even harder to reach the post-2020 targets. While in 2020 countries have to recycle at least 50 percent of municipal waste, the target is 55 percent for 2025 and 65 percent for 2035, according to the agreement between EU institutions on Circular Economy Package confirmed last week by the EU Council.

Low production levels

The one indicator where the Visegrad largely outperforms the EU average is the amount of municipal waste produced per capita. Leading again, Poland produces only 307 kg (2016), the other three between 339 and 379 kg. The figure for the EU is 482 kg.

The Visegrad Group ranks also relatively well in plastic packaging, a much discussed issue in Brussels and a future source of EU’s funding. While Hungary and Poland’s recycling rates are still below the EU’s 2020 target of 50 percent, Czech Republic and Slovakia score above it with 62 and 54 percent respectively (2015). EU as a whole recycles 40%.

Ivo Kropáček, expert from Hnutí Duha, a Czech NGO affiliated with Friends of the Earth, sees the problem elsewhere. “We produce about 300 kg of unsorted mixed municipal waste per person per year compared to the Flemish who produce about half at a much higher standard of living,” Kropáček told EURACTIV Czech Republic.

“The biggest deficit we have is in recycling kitchen and garden waste. Especially in the cities, households do have not any possibility to recycle kitchen waste, so they must throw it into mixed municipal waste. Then it produces methane in the landfill, contributing to climate change. Additionally, in the incinerator it acts as a retardant of combustion,” the expert explained.

Tackling biodegradable waste

The treatment of biological waste is a common problem in the Visegrad region. In 2015, the four countries recycled 13 – 46 kg per capita, while the EU is at 78 kg.

The Czech Environment Ministry recognizes the problem. “For that reason we are currently adjusting the legislation so that citizens can recycle biowaste throughout the whole year,” it told EURACTIV Czech Republic. Kropáček from Hnutí Duha points to the successful cities like Písek and Olomouc, which recycle more than 50 percent of municipal waste thanks to the “conceptual work and the extended or advanced recycling of biowaste”.

When the Commission analysed the causes for Hungary’s current distance to EU waste targets during the Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) in early 2017, it highlighted “no development in infrastructure and collection systems to divert biodegradable waste from landfilling”.

With 23 percent of recycled municipal waste in 2016, Slovakia ranked the worst in Visegrad and sixth worst in the EU. “Increasing the share of separated collection of biodegradable waste is the biggest challenge,” the Slovak Environment Ministry told EURACTIV Slovakia and added that its share in municipal waste is estimated at 40 – 50%. Although Poland recycles 46 kg of biowaste per capita (2015), food waste remains a challenge, according to the Polish Environment Ministry.

Landfilling fees and rates

Poland’s other big problem is landfilling.

Local experts believe that separate waste collection and recycling cost still more than landfilling – legal or illegal. They say waste collection as well as landfill fees need to be increased. The problem is that the cost would have to be born by citizens. In Poland, it’s the communes (gminy) who are responsible for municipal waste management. And mayors may be discouraged to introduce higher fees before this year’s municipal elections.

Incidentally, local elections are held in all four Visegrad countries this fall. And Poland actually has the lowest land rate and the highest landfill fees: 37% and 27 euros per tonne, respectively (2016). According to an analysis by the Slovak Environment Ministry, Hungary is at 51% and 25 euros and Czech Republic at 50% and 20 euros.

Slovakia ranks the last again with 65% of municipal waste landfilled at the cost of just 7 eur per tonne. The Slovak Environment Ministry has proposed a law to hike the fees and apply the polluter-pays principle.

Governance issues

Despite being at the opposite sides of the spectrum, Poland and Slovakia have one more issue in common: law enforcement.

In its 2017 EIR, the Commission concluded that “illegal landfilling and dumping waste in forests is a pressing problem” in Poland and “a huge problem” in Slovakia, mainly in the rich Bratislava region. The Polish report goes on to say that “according to a recent report by the Supreme Audit Office, this is mainly due to insufficient checks on enterprises dealing with waste management and a lack of sites for treating and disposing of specific waste (e.g. electronic waste, municipal bulky waste).”

But the Commission notes efforts on the part of Poland and Slovakia. The latter country has imposed a fine of up to one million euros for an illegal waste dump.

Another governance-related problem is the lack of reliable data across the Visegrad. Among experts in Poland, there have even been echoes of “creative reporting”. On two other V4 countries, the Commission went official: “There are still differences in national and Eurostat statistics” in Slovakia and “a non-harmonised national waste data base and insufficient reporting structures” in the Czech Republic.

The incineration trap

In the Czech Republic, the discrepancy between the data of the Environment Ministry and the Statistical Office is so big that it has a fundamentally detrimental effect on waste management. “The most visible aspect is, that according to the new Waste management plan, additional waste to energy capacity is foreseen (of 18% in 2020 and 28% in 2024) claiming that only 11% of waste is incinerated when, according to Eurostat, almost 20% of the municipal waste was incinerated in 2014,” reads Commission’s Czech IER.

The incineration trap – as a fake alternative to waste dumps – threatens the whole V4. According to a Hungarian governmental decree published in fall 2017, a large part of municipal and agricultural waste would be burnt in incineration and power plants.

“The government’s new concept on building incineration plants is an open confession that it cannot and does not even want to deal with waste recycling,” László Szilágyi, a green activist and opposition Member of the Parliament PM politician, told Political Capital. “They would build an expensive and centralised system, where the costs of collection would be high, and this way it would be impossible to maintain the utility cost cuts,” added Szilágyi pointing to the low collection fees criticized also by the Commission.

The second possible reason behind Fidesz’s waste incineration strategy is that pro-government companies earn considerable profits from the investments of the large incineration plant in the capital and those of numerous smaller ones in the countryside. The chairman of Humusz, a green NGO, Csilla Urbán, believes the EU is, too, party responsible for the slower ride towards circular economy because it still supports the incineration of the “renewable” portion of waste.

Gearing up towards 2030

What are the strategies for gearing up the V4 towards the ambitious targets in the 2020s and 2030s?

According to its response to EURACTIV Czech Republic, the Czech “Ministry of Environment will submit to the government a new waste legislative act which contains important tools such as the gradual increasing of the landfill fee and the introduction of a payment for waste in the form of pay-as-you-throw that leads to increased recycling, so that everybody has an overview of their waste production.”

The Slovak Environment Ministry is similarly optimistic. “In December 2017, we published the first draft of the Strategy of the Environmental Policy up to 2030, which calibrates systemic measures for Slovakia’s biggest environmental challenges including the support for circular economy,” it told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Hungary’s government came up with an ambitious plan in 2015 aiming to meet the 2020 targets, the practice is however different. Humusz’s Csilla Urbán believes that in addition to repairing the systemic shortcomings, “Hungary has opportunities to invest in technologies that could achieve or even overachieve EU requirements in the long-term.”

The bottom-up approach

In Poland, there are two ministries dealing with circular economy. Besides the Environment Ministry, it is the Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Technology. The latter is working on its own grand strategy. “One of the goals within the Governmental Strategy for Responsible Development is to prepare a road map for transformation aiming at circular economy. It will be a set of actions referring to all stages of the product’s life circle, which will create a complex tools proposal for the circular economy implementation in Poland,” it explained to EURACTIV Poland.

The draft roadmap is divided into four chapters applying circular economy priorities in the conditions of the Polish economy. They are sustainable production, sustainable consumption, bioeconomy and new business models.

A better government action including awareness raising is necessary, but insufficient. There is a multitude of stakeholders in the sector. The Czech packaging company EKO-KOM told EURACTIV Czech Republic that the country has one of the best collection networks in the EU. Municipalities even organize a national competition in waste recycling called the Crystal Bin. And Humusz’s Csilla Urbán highlighted for Political Capital the household composting programs in some municipalities in Hungary.

Indeed, the V4 governments can learn from the more advanced EU countries, but also from their own municipalities whose awareness is above the national average.

 

Table: Municipal Waste in V4 and EU

 

Czech Rep.

Hungary

Poland

Slovakia

EU28

Production per capita (in kg)

2016

339

379

307

348

482

2005

289

461

319

273

498

Landfill fees (in EUR/tonne)

 

20

25

26,6

6,8

 

Landfilling (in thousand tonnes)

2016

1 789

1 888

4 255

1236

59109

2005

1 934

3 859

8 623

1144

N/A

Of total waste in 2016

3 580

3 721

11 654

1890

246377

Of total waste in 2005

2 954

4 646

12 169

1468

255399

Landfilling rates (in %)

2016

50

51

37

65

24

2005

65

80

70

78

N/A

Recycling rates (in %)

2016

33,6

34,7

44,0

23,0

45,8

2005

6,2

9,6

5,6

2,0

N/A

Recycling rates of specific waste streams in 2015 (in % except for biowaste – in kg)

Overall packaging

74,3

50,1

57,6

64,3

65,4

Plastic packaging

61,7

27,4

31,6

54,4

39,8

Wooden packaging

68,7

19,9

50,5

42,1

39,3

Biowaste per capita

13

23

46

24

78

Sources: Eurostat, EIONET

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