Lost In Translation? What does ‘Circular Economy’ mean in Poland?

We meet Sanne Kaasjager, Economic Counsellor from The Netherlands Embassy in Poland.

“The circular economy is very different indeed! As an international lawyer and former multilateral negotiator, I have grown attached to having a clear and universal definition of a common goal. In most cases, if that’s not in place, we will get “lost in translation” in the implementation phase, with the result of missing the goal. But since I’m involved with circular economy in Poland, aware of the urgency of the challenge, I also learnt the lesson that we should just get started somewhere and not let ourselves get bogged down in definitions. There is so much creativity, entrepreneurship and energy already going around in introducing circular business models, why waste that on definitions?”

Coming up in this interview

  • We know that the Circular Economy has a slightly different definition for everyone and in every country. What does it mean in Poland?

  • The greatest opportunities for the transition to a CE in Poland;

  • Warsaw is in the top-3 cities in terms of the number of vegan restaurants;

  • Start-ups in circular business in Poland need commitment to a purpose, rather than a quick profit. Having patience is more important than a short- or even mid-term return on investment.

  • Interpretation by former lawyer and negotiator about a country with a very heavy background.

Sanne Kaasjager, Economic Counselor

An interesting and rather vague concept

“The circular economy is a rather vague concept. The European Commission defines the circular economy as “a regenerative economic model that gives back more to the planet than it takes”. The Dutch government speaks of “efficient use and re-use of raw materials, without harmful emissions to the environment”. In their “Roadmap towards the Transition to Circular Economy”, the Polish government talks about maximisation of added value of resources and products, and minimisation of waste. In their view, the circular economy should support the transition towards a resource-efficient, innovative and competitive Polish economy. 

Reading between the lines, you sense that the circular economy should not get in the way of economic growth, which Poles were not able to enjoy for decades after the Second World War. In 1989, after the fall of the communist regime, Poland was almost literally thrown into a capitalist economic model, causing the Polish economy to collapse even further. In the 90’s, the Poles miraculously recovered and maintained economic growth for 27 years in a row. This catching up, the possibility to buy what you want, resulted in a very consumerist culture. Nowadays, in this post-communistic era, a lot of people remember that they could not buy basic goods, that they had to repair, re-use and share every single item they had. As a result, some ideas of circularity remind them of that period and are not appealing at all.”

Circular economy is “an environmental issue”

“Looking at the facts, political and business interests are still dominant and focused on classic economic growth. Circular economy is still primarily perceived as “an environmental issue”. Government representatives admit that the Roadmap was only drafted because it was required by “Brussels”. The main priorities in the Polish policy are encouraging innovation and creating a market for secondary raw materials. Activities are limited to analysis, raising awareness, developing guidelines and doing feasibility studies. There is no target for Poland, like the Dutch goal of becoming fully circular in 2050. Implementation of the Roadmap is the responsibility of a small unit in the Economic Affairs Ministry and not a political priority.

Especially in the cities, however, a younger generation is increasingly aware of the need to change behavioral patterns and the current economic model. Polish people love to go out into nature, look for mushrooms, take a walk in the park with their family. Warsaw is in the top-3 cities in Europe with the highest number of vegan restaurants. The news about the Polish “Waste Mafia”, illegally burning tons of waste mostly originating from other European countries, caused a storm of protest. On top of that, more and more Polish businesses, small and large, start to see the commercial advantages of closing the loop, with prices of raw materials and energy going up, stricter and binding regulations from Brussels, and changing consumer preferences.”

Not high on the political agenda, but increasingly aware of need and opportunities of change.

What do you think, are the greatest opportunities for the transition to a CE in the country where you work? 

“I’m an optimist, so the fact that Poland has a long way to go before reaching full circularity means that there is a lot of low hanging fruit that can be harvested. Actually, we will be commissioning a market survey for CE obstacles and opportunities for Dutch business in Poland. That will provide more clarity and detail, but here are my own first thoughts.

First of all, I would expect that Polish companies will have a closer look at their resource and energy efficiency. With prices going up and the Corona restrictions taking their toll, there is an increasing drive for saving costs. Why lay-off employees? Polish resource efficiency is the third lowest in Europe, so this is the area to look into first of all.

Related, but at a different level, the government is now seriously committed to accelerate the energy transition in Poland. Analysts and media illustrate Poland as the “future renewables champion of Europe”. In the wind and solar energy sector, in particular, an abundance of opportunities is emerging.”

In which sector do you see these opportunities arising?

“One sector that looks specifically promising is the construction sector. Cooperation between construction and demolition companies is getting stronger, in a common, cost-driven ambition to become more resource-efficient. The Polish ministry of economic development is working on incentives to advance circular construction, through adjusting legislation and procurement procedures, focusing more on sustainability.

There is also a world to be won in educating and raising awareness of how you – company, government or citizen – can profit by introducing a more circular approach in your personal life, value chain or work operations. This takes time and expertise. NGOs, consultants, academics and government institutions are eager to obtain this expertise, if necessary from abroad.”

What are the hurdles to starting a circular business in Poland?

“Start-ups in circular business in Poland need commitment to a purpose, rather than a quick profit. Having patience is more important than a short- or even mid-term return on investment. At the same time, finding finance and forth-coming banks is a challenge. Furthermore, trust is not easily built in Poland. A handshake is not enough, Poles want contracts. And you will encounter bureaucracy. Finding a solid Polish partner organization is strongly recommended or sometimes even legally required. Finally, learn to speak (some) Polish, it really breaks the ice!”

How did you get into the position you now have at the embassy?

“After my admission to the Dutch foreign service, I had many different positions, ranging from policy advisor in the UN department, political attaché at the Netherlands Embassy in Colombo (Sri Lanka), representative of the Netherlands in the board of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, negotiator for the Dutch government in the UN climate negotiations, coordinator of Dutch contributions to peacekeeping operations, head of unit in the Africa department, to my current work as trade counsellor in Warsaw. Someone described me as some sort of diplomatic jack-of-all-trades. I think that summarizes it quite nicely.”

And what do you consider the most prominent project within the local CE?

“Two examples of companies that are, in my view, real circular companies are both Dutch: Van Werven Plastics Recycling and MUD Jeans. 

Earlier this year, Van Werven Plastics Recycling gave me the opportunity to “take a peak in their kitchen”. For one week I followed their operations and management from up-close. Witnessed their entire production process and their experiments to make it more efficient, drove on a shovel, helped out on the sorting machine (with Polish workers!), really cool. It taught me that – with a lot of effort, the right regulatory framework and financial incentives – circular business can actually be profitable.

The Dutch company MUD Jeans is a schoolbook example of a circular business model. They were able to successfully introduce on the market fully recyclable jeans and a lease model for their trousers. Did you know that the production of one (1!) pair of jeans costs 7.000 liters of water? They are not only circular, but also very aware of their social responsibility, investing in labour conditions, which are often appalling in the textile industry.

Read our Circular Story about sustainable denim brand: Kings of Indigo here. 

It is really hard to come up with an example of a prominent local CE project. There are lots of smaller initiatives, introducing interesting innovative technologies, especially in the field of waste management and recycling. But there is no such thing (yet) as a systemic or sectoral approach in Poland.”

What can you advise entrepreneurs to start doing right away to expand their business to Poland?

“Get in touch with INNOWO, the Polish Circular Hotspot. They are so well-connected and knowledgeable, a true spider in the web and our most trusted and effective partner in Poland. Their advice would probably be to get in touch with the larger Polish companies and multinational brands, to effectively introduce your innovations or implement your ideas. In Poland, as in many countries, you need scale, capital, network and influence in the sector, to get something started. These companies are increasingly driven towards sustainability, f.e. by changing consumer preferences, (EU) regulations.

Second advice would be to approach (through us or INNOWO) local governments, especially cities. They are often ready to invest in circular economy approaches. Three major Polish cities (Krakow, Lublin and Gdansk) have commissioned Dutch company Metabolic to make a scan of their city, providing the groundwork for a municipal circular economy strategy. To take an example of the opportunities for improvement in city administration, let’s look at waste segregation. According to Eurostat data, Poles don’t produce more waste than the EU average, but they still recycle far less than Western Europeans (between 35-45%). Warsaw municipality is now introducing new technologies in multi-apartment estates that monitor the “quality” of your waste disposal in order to seriously increase the recycling rate. Another example: municipal hospitals are, due to new (EU) regulations, desperate for solid and liquid waste treatment technologies, and allocating budgets to acquire them.”

Orbisk developed the world’s first automated food waste monitor. Read their story here.

“Some local governments also have a strong drive to introduce sustainable public transport, as a means to improve the air quality in cities. Data of Swiss air monitoring platform IQAir shows that 29 of Europe’s 100 worst cities for air quality are located in Poland. No surprise that entire diesel-powered bus fleets are being replaced by hybrid or electric buses. On top of that, I’m told that there is a huge renovation programme on its way to modernize the coal-powered district heating systems in the built environment.”

What inspires you to advance circular economy?

“The period as climate negotiator switched me on to sustainability. I then realised that we are faced with a threat that we should deal with.  But also the positive side of this challenge struck me. The opportunities. The creativity. Exciting new technologies. This idea of bringing planet, people and profit together in a win-win-situation. The conviction that green growth can be done. People may think I am an ideologist. But I am also a realist: taking the path of sustainability is simply the most economically sensible choice. The longer we wait, the higher the costs will be. At all levels.

The younger generation also inspires me. My eldest son, 22, is very convinced of the fact that the current model is untenable. He demonstrated at Ende Gelande, teamed up with Extinction Rebellion and is now thinking of ways to turn his masters study (Applied Physics) into a contribution to sustainable development. I’m very proud to see what he and his companions are doing. They have a very positive, entrepreneurial and creative attitude towards facing this crisis.

When I started in my job as head of the economic department, in February 2019, I found myself in a perfect position to connect trade promotion with my government’s sustainability goals. We will try to help any Dutch company that knocks on our door, in all sectors. But in our four priority areas, one of which is circular economy, we will make an extra effort. With our trade promotion toolkit and our network we can proactively approach, mobilise and connect Dutch businesses. By doing so, we are adding an operational dimension to our policy goals, such as climate diplomacy and advancing circular economy. In other words, we try to translate policy intentions into action, with the help of the private sector, constantly looking for business opportunities in the field of sustainable enterprise.”

In which sector are you trying to make an impact?

“We initiated and helped set up the ‘Polish Circular Hotspot’, we co-organized three Circular Economy Weeks, showcasing Dutch pioneering companies, we held government-to-government consultations on plastic recycling, we set up cooperation between like-minded embassies in Warsaw, facilitated business workshops on circular construction, agriculture and healthcare, and recently organised a large-scale digital conference on Circular Business Models. On a more individual basis, our team helped several Dutch companies in circular business (from a seller of e-bikes, a producer of furniture from “secondary raw materials”, to an installer of e-charging stations) to get a foothold in Poland.”

With which questions can entrepreneurs come to you for enquiries about circular business across borders?

“Any question! Most questions we get are about market orientation and finding business partners. Some circular entrepreneurs we met already set up office or found a Polish agent. Over the years, we were able to build up quite a good network, with interesting entry points.”

What company best represents the image of a real circular company in your opinion?

“The project most visible and inspiring is, without a doubt, the yearly Circular Economy Week in Warsaw. It is expanding every year, reaching people and businesses far beyond the Polish borders. Our digital conference on Circular Business Models attracted over 200 participants, including viewers from Kenia, India and Brazil. Amazing. And we had such an incredible line-up of speakers! This year, Corona-restrictions forced us to experiment with a live broadcast from a studio instead of  a live conference. We faced some serious technical issues in the beginning, but in the end it worked out quite well.”

Sanne, if you could have a gigantic video-billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say?

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little” 

Epicurus

And how does that work in the light of  COVID-19?

“In the short term, COVID-19 has had mixed effects on circularity. On one hand, people are consuming less (clothing, for example).  But on the other hand, online shopping has boomed, which in turn led to an additional waste flow (packaging, returned goods). What is the effect of remote working on resource use? I don’t know, we don’t have the figures yet showing us the overall impact on circularity. In the longer run, COVID-19 proved the need to shorten logistic chains and move production back to Europe. This could mean business opportunities for introducing modern, more circular production methods, activating and maturing the market for secondary raw materials in Europe.”

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little” – Epicurus. 

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