High-risk garbage

Fire of a garbage dump in Zabrze | Photo: KM PSP W Zabrzu
Fire of a garbage dump in Zabrze | Photo: KM PSP W Zabrzu

Almost 70 landfills have been on fire in Poland since the beginning of the year. Tons of toxic substances have entered the environment, the impact of which will be felt over the years. All of these because China started to care for the environment and stopped importing waste materials. Poland took over.

blog post by Daniel Flis [oko.press]

From January to May 2018, the Polish Ministry of Environment recorded 63 fires of landfills, while throughout whole 2017 there were 37 of them. What burnt, were plastics, municipal solid waste, oils, varnishes, tires, car bodies and more.

Toxic substances leaked into the atmosphere: highly carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene, dioxins and furans that cause problems in the immune and reproductive system, as well as hydrogen chloride and heavy metals, which harm the nervous system, causing respiratory diseases.

The effects of the fires on the environment and residents of neighboring towns will be felt for the next several years.

Although in none of the cases the perpetrators were identified, it is hard to believe that the fires were spontaneous. Everything rather points to the fact that tons of toxic substances have flown into the air, because for the owners of the landfills, it pays way better to collect or import and set fire to the garbage than utilize it, as they had committed to.

Companies that store secondary raw materials, get a total of PLN 200 (approx. 45 EUR) per ton of garbage received from abroad. It took several days to extinguish fire of a landfill near Zgierz, full of almost 50,000 tons of waste. It means that its owners earned over 2.2 million euro – with minimal outlay. Contrary to the regulations, garbage lay loose in heaps, directly on the ground, not protected against rain. Or against fire. As the inspection has later proven, there had not even been one fire extinguisher in the landfill.

That kind of garbage dump could have been created because the Polish law is exceptionally mild in that scope: it is easy to bring waste from abroad to the country, easy to set up a landfill but difficult to impose a penalty for breaking the law. Although the perpetrators of the landfill can face up to 10 years in prison, none of them has been identified so far.

The problem is not new in Poland, however since 2015 it has been getting more and more serious. In 2013-2015, approximately 400,000 tons of garbage were imported to Poland yearly.  In 2016, after Law and Justice party won the elections, the Minister of Environment approved the acceptance of a total of 700,000 tons of garbage, and in 2017 – 750,000 tons.

2018 may be even more abundant because of the Chinese. On January 1st, China – which used to take about 30 percent of waste from Europe, for the sake of their own environment, introduced an embargo on the import of 24 types of garbage, including plastic, glass, unsorted paper. As a consequence, European countries had to increase their exports to other waste importers. For example, to Poland.

After the series of fires, the Polish Ministry of Environment quickly prepared a project of amendments, to improve the safety of landfills. Import of certain categories of waste is to be forbidden, to receive a permit for establishing a landfill, one will need a permission from a fire authority, and a monitoring system at the dump will be a must. Illegal storage will be punished with fines amounting from 2,2 to 230 thousand euro. Experts bring into focus however, that paying fines may still turn out to be more profitable than waste utilization.

Some of those provisions will come into force in over a  year after the adoption of the law, on which the Polish parliament is still working. In the meantime, it can be expected that even more landfills will be burning this summer in Poland.