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Growing by leaps and bounds: Poland’s environmental industry

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At Polblume’s factory, workers disassemble a variety of electronics, separating the plastic, metal and circuit board components.

By Peter Davey

The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.  CC 4.0 Wikimedia
The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.
CC 4.0 Wikimedia

Poland’s Palace of Culture and Science

The 780-foot Palace of Culture and Science overshadows the skyline of Warsaw. Built in 1955, the sprawling tower, a “gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation,” was built among the ruins of the city and was the second tallest building in Europe at the time. For residents, the tower exemplified the power and dominance of Soviet rule and communism and they referred to it with distaste as the “elephant in lace” and “Stalin’s syringe.”

Today, modern steel and glass skyscrapers ring the city centre, vying for attention and prestige with the Palace. The latest car models and Tommy Hilfiger are advertised on immense billboards.
Such is also the way of Poland’s environment and industry. Left with a toxic communist legacy, the country is now racing to catch up with European Union regulations and clean technology.

Funded by a number of EU programs designed to close the infrastructure gap between Poland and the EU, the country has invested heavily. The Operational Programme: Infrastructure and Environment (OPI&E) is the largest of these programs in Poland and one of the largest in the EU. Approximately $38 billion is being invested into transport, environment, energy, education and culture.

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Wind turbines have been built, biogas digesters constructed and highways laid down. The emphasis on clean energy production has allowed air quality to improve despite economic development and increased vehicle use. However, Poland still faces high ozone, nitrogen dioxide and air particulate pollution. Standing on the viewing platform at the Palace of Culture and Science, the red and white painted flues of coal plants surrounding the city are visible through the haze.

Environmental Industry

The tradeshow floor at Poleko 2014 in Poznan, Poland.
The tradeshow floor at Poleko 2014 in Poznan, Poland.

The investment and push for clean water, air and energy has created opportunities which companies are keen to capture. Hundreds of exhibitors and nearly 14,000 attendees gathered in the city of Poznan to attend Poleko 2014: International Trade Fair of Environmental Protection. The event has run for 26 years and attracts big European companies in environmental, municipal and energy industries.

At Polblume’s factory, workers disassemble a variety of electronics, separating the plastic, metal and circuit board components.
At Polblume’s factory, workers disassemble a variety of electronics, separating the plastic, metal and circuit board components.

Waste in all of its forms, uses and liabilities, was the predominant topic at the show. Polish firm Polblume, is looking to capitalize on the large amount of electronic and hazardous waste generated in Poland and Europe. At a small plant and storage yard outside Warsaw, workers disassemble electronics into their smaller components, separating plastics, metals and circuit boards. In another building, a pilot project is being conducted to chemically extract precious metals and rare earth minerals from circuit boards.

Most promising, the company said, is the recycling of used battery components. Large numbers of batteries are discarded, yet they can be salvaged and sold to manufacturers for reuse. Polblume owner Zbigniew Miazga, said he hopes to eventually be processing 10,000 tonnes of used batteries collected from across Europe.

On a larger scale, the recently built Warsaw wastewater treatment plant is one of the largest in Eastern Europe. When Poland joined the EU in 2004, only 30-40% of the municipality’s wastewater received primary treatment. The $640 million plant was designed and built by a consortium including Veolia Water, Vinci Construction and WTE. It brings Warsaw up to EU discharge standards and has a treatment capacity of up to 515,000 m³/day.

The Warsaw WWTP is an example of the large-scale investments and infrastructure projects occurring in Poland. In the City of Łódz (pronounced “Woodge”), a special economic zone has been set up to attract investors and combat high unemployment. Once known for its textile industry, sprawling red brick factories now lay abandoned and crumbling. The economic zone’s corporate tax breaks, state aid and infrastructure improvements, have brought in a number of large well known companies including Gillette, Flextronics and Fujistu. The zone’s headquarters and rented office space now occupy a remodeled textile mill, grafting steel and glass to historic red brick.

Despite a tragic history punctuated by atrocity and rule by European powers, and the legacy of a command economy, the vibrancy and energy of Poland is immense. Cranes have sprouted up among the drab blocks of apartment buildings, building office towers and condominiums. Young people throng the streets, speaking easy English to each other and tourists. As it races to catch up with European standards, economic and environmental growth seems to be pulled along.

Members of the Canadian study delegation. The group included journalists and business professionals.
Members of the Canadian study delegation. The group included journalists and business professionals.

ES&E was invited to attend a press tour of Poland’s environmental industry last October. The event was
sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Economy and co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

Peter Davey is Assistant Editor of ES&E Magazine. This article appeared in ES&E’s January/February 2015 issue.

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