EKOMALOPOLSKA – where does my rubbish land?

How much rubbish do we produce each year? Jakich śmieci generujemy najwięcej? Co dzieje się z naszymi śmieciami, gdy już opuszczą nasze domy? To kwestie, nad którymi warto się zastanowić, aby zrozumieć dlaczego tak wiele mówi się o właściwej segregacji odpadów.

In 2018, 12 485 400 tonnes of municipal waste, i.e. waste that is generated in our households, was generated in Poland. This was an increase of 4.3% compared to the previous year.

There was an average of 325 kg of municipal waste collected per person in Poland in 2018.

Of the 325 kg of waste generated per inhabitant, as much as 231 kg is mixed waste, while the remaining 94 kg is selective waste, i.e. waste we separate at home.

Segregated waste includes different types of waste, which are distributed as follows:


  • 26,4 kg – biodegradable waste
  • 15,0 kg – packaging waste
  • 13,7 kg – bulky waste
  • 13,1 kg – glass waste
  • 8,6 kg – plastics
  • 7 kg – paper and cardboard
  • 10,1 kg – waste from other sources

Where does our rubbish go?

In 2018, 12 485 400 tonnes of municipal waste was generated in Poland. What happens to this rubbish? Where do they go when they are collected from our homes?

  • 41.6% of waste is landfilled, i.e. sent to landfill;
  • 26.2% of waste goes to recycling;
  • 8.1% of waste is composted and digested;
  • 22.6% of waste goes to incineration plants and is thermally transformed with energy recovery (they are incinerated);
  • 1.5% of waste goes to an incinerator and is thermally transformed without energy recovery.w?

To better understand the waste disposal process, let’s take a look at each of the above methods, learning about their advantages and disadvantages.

Storage of waste – first method


Where is the waste stored?

  • in a landfill
  • in an underground waste disposal facility
  • in a facility for the disposal of extractive waste

There are three types of landfill:

  • landfill site for hazardous waste
  • landfill for inert waste;
  • landfill for non-inert and hazardous waste.

Inert waste is, for example, construction and demolition waste: glass, bricks, concrete, tiles and ceramics, but with a low content of other types of materials (such as metals, plastics, soil, organic waste, wood, rubber, etc.). The above-mentioned types of waste do not qualify as inert waste if they are contaminated with hazardous substances, treated, or covered or painted with materials with a significant content of hazardous substances.

Hazardous waste is the waste produced by industries such as mining and metallurgy, paint, varnish and pesticide plants, electrical and electronic, printing, chemicals, explosives, rubber and plastics, cell and battery plants, textiles, oil and coal processing, paper and leather, among others. Certain types of hazardous waste can be collected in an underground storage facility. They must be in the form of solid material, i.e. they must not contain water and they must not be explosive, spontaneously combustible, gas-bearing or radioactive. They must also not emit noxious gases and must be located in suitable containers. The most common types of waste are: waste from the construction, renovation and demolition of buildings and road infrastructure containing asbestos, tar products, pharmaceuticals, agents used for chemical surface treatment of metals, or polycyclic carcinogenic aromatic compounds.

Non-inert and hazardous waste includes municipal waste, i.e. the waste we produce in our homes.

In Poland, it is landfill sites that receive the most waste. As much as 41.6% of municipal waste, which amounts to over 5 million tonnes of rubbish. Estimating that one adult elephant weighs 6 tonnes, this equates to over 860 000 elephants.

What’s the most common thing in landfills? Nappies!Pieluchy_odpady

To get a better idea of the problem of the amount of waste going to landfill, let’s look at one type of so-called ‘mixed’ waste – nappies. Nappies account for about 30% of non-biodegradable waste. The only rubbish that outnumbers disposable nappies are newspapers and food and drink containers. However, while newspapers and containers can be recycled and recyclable, nothing can be done with nappies, so they end up in the landfill along with other mixed waste. Each toddler wearing disposable nappies, over a period of two and a half years, uses around 6,500 nappies, which translates into around a tonne of waste which ends up in landfill. So, nationwide, babies born in 2019 will generate around 7% of all landfill waste.

How much landfills cover in Poland?

At the end of 2017, there were 301 landfills accepting municipal waste in Poland. They covered 1,741.6 hectares (that’s the area of 2,487 football fields) and accounted for 92.5 per cent of the area where municipal waste was dumped.

The remainder, or 7.5% of this area, is the area of wild dumps, illegal dumps. At the end of 2017, there were 1,661 wild dumpsites in Poland, while 13,000 such sites were eliminated during the year under review. Almost 43,000 tonnes of waste were collected during their liquidation.

Landfill sites, especially illegal ones, have a serious impact on the environment:

  • they pollute surface water: so called leachate is produced when waste is washed away by rainwater and septic processes take place. They affect surface water, groundwater and the soil. Among other things, they contaminate them with heavy metals, organic acids and hydrocarbons.
  • They contaminate the soil: heavy metals, sulphur and fluorine compounds, dust, bacteria and fungi are ubiquitous within a radius of at least 50 metres, not only of the landfill itself but also of any roads used to transport waste. Soil contamination is often irreversible. In properly prepared landfill sites, the subsoil is separated by an impermeable slab or a layer of plastic sheeting, and water from rain runs off through channels into reservoirs so as not to contaminate the soil.
  • lead to contamination of vegetation: through the soil and then the roots, toxic chemicals find their way into various parts of the plants. The crops of lettuce, beetroot, cabbage are particularly vulnerable to contamination. These vegetables absorb contaminants from the environment extremely quickly. It is also worth mentioning that in the environment of landfill sites, the entire vegetation cycle of plants is extremely slow and sometimes even disappears.
  • They pollute the air: rubbish dumped in a landfill emits biogases which escape into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect or causing spontaneous combustion of rubbish and even forest fires. Properly prepared landfills have built-in degassing systems to prevent spontaneous combustion, and the biogas can be used to generate electricity.

Recycling – second method


Another method of waste disposal is recycling. This is a process by which the items we throw away are transformed into raw material from which new products can be made. This is one way of protecting the environment, as it helps to reduce the consumption of natural resources (such as wood, used to make paper, metal ores needed to make steel, batteries or electronics, oil used to make plastic) and to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.

A key element of recycling is the correct separation of waste. The division of waste into appropriate groups is partly automatic and partly manual,

but as even the most advanced technologies are not always able to capture all recyclable waste in its huge volume and mix, the separation of waste lies in the hands of the sorting plant staff, who carry out manual sorting at special sorting belts.

This is why it is so important that we separate waste correctly in our homes. The more accurate the segregation at household level, the easier the task will be for sorting plant staff, thus increasing the level of recovery of raw materials and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.

So what should we do?

  • First of all, carefully separate paper, plastic, metal, glass and biowaste and put these fractions in the correct containers;
  • Multi-material packaging, such as milk and juice cartons, have a layer of paper, aluminium and plastic. Although they are dominated by cardboard, remember to put them in the bin for metals and plastics;
  • The packaging we throw away does not need to be washed by us, as it will be washed at the sorting plant;
  • Always unscrew and crush plastic bottles before throwing them away. They then take up less space, so more bottles will go into the container. In addition, caps are made of a different material and are separated from the bottle at the sorting plant, so it is worth doing this at home;
  • There are often collections of the bottle caps themselves, so it is worth collecting them at home and handing them in at designated points. The bottle tops are turned into a secondary raw material in the form of plastic regranulate, which is then used to make plastic parts;
  • For biodegradable waste, do not put it in the container together with the bag, as it is made of plastic and will not biodegrade. Dispose of bio-waste from our household bags directly into brown bags or bio-waste containers.
  • Hazardous waste: Used batteries and accumulators, out-of-date medicines, used fluorescent light bulbs, corrosive chemicals (e.g. pesticides), old electrical and electronic equipment may not be disposed of in the rubbish bin. They can only be disposed of at specially designated points in shops and pharmacies, as well as at selective municipal waste collection points, i.e. so-called PSZOKs, which are located in every municipality.

Given the amount of rubbish people generate, recycling is extremely important, but it does not solve the problem of excessive waste production. Above all, we should aim to reduce the rubbish we generate ourselves, i.e. refrain from buying items we do not need and choose products that generate as little waste as possible.

Recycling myths

As the topic of recycling is extremely popular today, many myths are created around it.

MIT 1: Segregated waste is put in the same rubbish truck anyway

Two types of vehicles are used to collect segregated waste. Modern refuse collection vehicles have special compartments into which individual fractions of waste are placed. If there are no such compartments in the waste compartment of a particular vehicle, it means that it is designed to collect a particular type of waste and the remaining waste will be collected by another rubbish truck or on a different day.

MIT 2: Electro-waste is not hazardous

We often think that waste such as a TV set or an old computer is simply a structure made of metal components, which in itself is not harmful to the environment. However, companies that carry out electro-waste collection exist for a reason – there are many harmful substances in electronic devices that not only pollute the environment, but also pose a direct threat to our lives. These include, for example, lead, mercury, nickel and bromine.

MIT 3: Segregation of rubbish in our homes is irrelevant to the recovery process

In fact, the earlier waste separation takes place – ideally just after the product itself has been used – the greater the recovery of the raw materials used in its manufacture. This, in turn, significantly increases the percentage of products made from secondary raw materials.

Composting and fermentation – third method


Another method of waste disposal is composting and fermentation. Composting is a natural method of waste disposal and management, involving the decomposition of organic matter – that is, the bio-waste we collect – by micro-organisms – aerobic bacteria, nematodes, fungi.

As a result of the composting process from biologically active household waste, two fractions are obtained: compost suitable, for example, for the reclamation of green areas: squares, parks, reclamation of wild dumps, and chemically and biologically neutral ballast left in the landfill.

Nowadays, products labelled as biodegradable, such as paper cups, cutlery and packaging, are strongly promoted as environmentally friendly products. However, it is important to remember that biodegradable products are only good for the environment if they end up in the right bin.

Biodegradability is a characteristic of a material that means that it breaks down naturally in the environment. Examples of biodegradable rubbish include products made from cellulose fibres, food scraps, pieces of paper or some fruit and vegetable packaging available in shops. If these end up in a place where they can decompose freely, then the carbon molecules contained in such material are released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

However, most of our rubbish does not end up in the environment. The waste we produce usually ends up in a landfill. There, the carbon molecules decompose differently due to the limited access to oxygen (landfills are cramped and hot).

These same molecules become methane, and methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Therefore, biodegradable products are only environmentally neutral if they are recycled (for example, paper) or composted, i.e. in the bio-waste bin. This is why it is important to remember to segregate properly.

Combustion – the fourth method


The last method of waste disposal is incineration. Waste that cannot be recycled, composted or fermented can be sent to a landfill or incineration plant. In the process of thermal waste conversion, or incineration, energy – electricity and heat – is recovered from waste.

Incinerators certainly have the advantage of reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, as well as recovering energy.

However, although the operation of incineration plants is subject to strict regulations relating to, among other things, the use of safeguards and filters, there is still some degree of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of incineration and this cannot be avoided.

Recycling, composting and fermentation are the most environmentally neutral methods of waste disposal. By segregating waste properly, we keep the amount of waste to a minimum. The more waste is recycled, composted and digested, the less will end up in landfill and incineration plants.

What we need to remember, however, is that what we should be aiming for in the first place is to reduce our production of rubbish. The less we throw away, the better, the key to saving our planet from being inundated with rubbish is to reduce our purchase of goods. Let’s buy less, choose products that generate the least amount of waste – it’s the only way to save our planet.


Try to perform!

As a homework assignment, students are encouraged to prepare a list with their household members of places in the local area where special waste such as:

  • plastic caps
  • light bulbs
  • used batteries
  • used electronic equipment (computer, telephone, charger, etc.)
  • expired medicines
  • textiles (clothes you no longer use)

The project was carried out with the financial support of the Malopolska Region.