Tips from Poland on Old-School Zero Waste
default, Schoolchildren from Myślenice posing with birdhouses during a lesson on eco-consciousness, 1939, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, kooperatywy_spozywcze_nac-3.jpg
Poland is home to more than a few consumer habits from decades past– the result of frugality, poverty or plain old common sense. Today, these time-tested practices are back in style as emerging, eco-friendly trends.
In The Star Diaries, Stanisław Lem wrote something along the lines of: ‘the more developed a civilisation becomes, the more trash can be found there’. From that perspective, we might at least congratulate ourselves on being such a developed world. But so far – thankfully – no one has come up with Lem’s idea of launching our trash into space (although every space mission does generate free-floating waste). So, we have to deal with it here, on Earth.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the trend of zero waste began in the West, with the goal of radically decreasing trash output. The movement’s mission can be broken down into five rules: decreasing the consumption of unnecessary products and refusing those whose manufacture hurts the environment, reusing items after their intended purpose is complete, recycling and composting organic materials.
Meanwhile, Poland of the ’90s was in the process of making up for lost time – moving in the exact opposite direction of zero waste. After the original rush of consumption came a moral hangover, when the nation found itself drowning in tons of trash. In ecological magazines like Zielone Brygady (Green Brigade), alarm bells were already sounding about Earth’s future covered in trash, as well as advice on how to counteract this possibility. But few people paid attention. Today, with ecological awareness peaking, it’s worth remembering how Poland functioned before the capitalist boom.
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There is a Polish saying: ‘kto rachuje i oszczędza, nie zajrzy mu w oczy nędza’ (‘he who works and saves, destitution doesn’t threaten’). But in daily life, the opposite has often been true. Decades ago, the most zero-waste places in Poland were, of course, the villages, which also boasted of almost entirely plant-based kitchens. This wasn’t caused by consumer choices, however, but rather necessitated by poverty. Instead, we’ll focus on examples from larger towns, although their eco-friendly choices have sometimes been driven by a lack of options as well.
Shopping with a basket
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Let’s begin with everyday shopping. The pre-war group Warszawskiej Spółdzielni Mieszkaniowej (Warsaw Housing Cooperative) was one of the first pioneers of ecological thinking and public planning. In the Warsaw district of Żolibórz, there was an experimental business and school garden, where children could become acquainted with nature. The garden even had a ‘plant sanatorium’, where plants could be dropped off for baby-sitting while their owners went out of town, or for some revitalisation under the watchful eye of the gardener.
In the 1930s, a chain of co-ops began a waste-saving contest, offering discounts to those who took care to reduce their use of packaging. The monthly gazette Życie WSM (WSM Life) wrote:
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For the purpose of proper hygiene, it’s necessary to properly pack up food in stores. But it is possible for stores to go too far, wishing to show off their elegance and good customer service. In our co-op, this irrational desire should not be permitted, which results in an increase in costs by creating unnecessary expenditures. This is all caused by excessive packaging […]
As a reminder, these were the times before the proliferation of plastics, where products where still packaged in paper. The parade of practical advice continued: buying sweet cream in returnable cups, reusing paper bags from goods such as flour to package vegetables, and so forth. The same article continued:
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[…] First of all, you must get rid of your false embarrassment of going shopping with a clean and aesthetically-pleasing basket. This embarrassment is further pointless since we live in a working neighbourhood. Going shopping with a basket should be seen as proof of our good housekeeping and democracy […] A woven basket (bag) links the traits of practicality and price with aesthetics.
A basket – which, to the modern citizen of Żolibórz, reminded them of rural life, and so took much convincing for them to use – lived on through the communist regime in Poland, only eventually being displaced by plastic bags.
Today’s plastic bags might be considered one-use, but it doesn’t mean you have to use them that way. Under the communist regime, it was common to use mesh bags. The first plastic bags were a crinkly wave of the coming future, with labels like Pewex, Hugo Boss, Levi’s, Baltona, Duty Free or Aldi that sounded more like magic words than companies. But these plastic bags, which were often difficult to find or expensive to purchase, were treated gently and used constantly (both back then and now, it is common to find a matryoshka of plastic bags in a Polish person’s kitchen, with the largest one serving as the mother-bag).
In the 1990s, when I was in elementary school, carrying your shoes in a plastic bag was good form (as opposed to using mesh bags, which we believed were the purview of pre-schoolers). Plastic bags were ranked from best to worst: ‘bazaar-quality’ or ‘high-end’ (the most important aspect being which logo the bag featured). The nicest bags were re-used over and over until their handles snapped and the letters wore off.
Before and for a moment after the fall of the wall, one-use products were a rare sight. Tissues, towels, diapers, razors were all multi-use. Trash cans were full of trash wrapped in newspapers, not plastic bags.
Writing on the wonders of Polish recycling
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While on the topic of trash, here’s a quick lesson the history of recycling over the past 111 years. In her collection of stories (or ecological morality tales), titled simply Trashcan (1908), Wanda Haberkantówna explained the many benefits that come from recycling.
A few words about this author lost to history, who was ‘an environmentalist in love with the entire world’. Hers is a typical biography of a woman from the era of suffragettes. She studied in Geneva in a time when women did not have access to higher education, returning to Poland at the turn of the century as a doctor of chemistry. She joined an organization whose mission was to secretly educate women, where she taught science from its basics. At her own cost, she created hands-on experiences for her students, and during the Interwar period, she used her experience in the underground to create lessons for grade schools.
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Trashcan was one of Haberkantówna’s ‘edu-taining’ titles. It was renewed multiple times, most recently in 1928. The book begins with a story about Antek. The main character, a street urchin in Warsaw, makes money by collecting items deemed useless:
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What does a ‘buyer’ do with old papers? He sends them off to a processing plant, where they’re turned back into paper […] Glass goes to the glass factory, iron to the iron plant. There, they melt the material and pour it into new forms. Thus, trash changes form and goes back into the world to serve people. You want to know how I know about all of this? Antek told me. He pretty much never went to school, and he can’t even read, but here and there, he learned different things that he cares about – because from these rags, pieces of paper and so on, he makes his livelihood. He should know what’s worth collecting or tossing, what pays better and what pays worse. Antek would never think that collecting trash means collecting ‘useless’ things
In his own way, Antek was also a freegan: ‘he ate leftovers thrown away by the kitchen’. The crisis in the 1930s kept Antek’s lessons fresh. At the end of the decade, collecting these resources also helped the military. A poster from 1939 read: ‘Citizens! Germans long ago realised that a great country is one where nothing goes wasted: not a single piece of iron, bone, glass, old rags or paper. They collect, and we pay them great money for these leftovers’.
Collections of paper, glass and metal funded the National Defence Fund. In the 1938/1939 school year, trucks belonging to the Polish White Cross cruised the streets. From the money earned by collecting wastepaper, the organisation purchased books for the army’s break rooms. In the ’50s, the collections continued ‘just in case’. Just like the Defence Fund collected for airplanes, now, the collections went to build the metro in Warsaw (leaving us curious what they were ultimately used for).
Collecting wastepapers at school was so common it turned into a particular sign of the times. The magazine Przekrój wrote as follows: 'My little Jurek attends first grade, which means that his mother, and maybe all his aunts and neighbours without children, must collect paper. Jurek has a plan to collect 10 kilograms per year, but little Jurek has ambitions to collect more'.
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A meme from the times of the communist regime pictures a common scene in a store: trading a kilogram of wastepaper for a single roll of toilet paper. There were also such events as ‘Schoolbooks for Wastepaper’, which was initiated by Studio 2: for a pack of paper, you received a coupon for a copy of the works of Adam Mickiewicz.
Glass recycling was a constant problem for Poland. The censors in Poland under the communist regime struck out a portion of a script from Gangsterów i Filantropów (Gangsters and Philanthropists), which showed two low-level gangsters making a fortune thanks to the fact that empty glass bottles of żurek soup were bought for more than the cost of a full glass.
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The glass problem continued until the end of the regime. It was possible to recycle more types of bottle than today (such as milk or vodka bottles), but not all of them, as people sometimes believe. A week after the 1989 legislative election, the grocery co-op Społem organized a press release on the matter of buying glass. This is what everyone found out:
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Customers come to the store, bringing in bottles, brimming with wisdom about the supposed importance of reclaiming raw materials, but they don’t know that we’re in the middle of a reform and that everything must break even. And it doesn’t.
Something out of nothing: upcycling & ecodesign
20th century history
After recycling, it’s time for upcycling – giving old items a second life. Poland has a long tradition in this area, as shown in Olga Drenda’s book Wyroby (Wares). For 24 years, the program Do It Yourself featured Adam Słodowy teaching viewers how to turn items such as used coffee cans into shovels, or how to make a bed out of skis.
The examples of old-school DIY are numerous in Poland, and the motif of upcycling can be found in many places. Take, for example Mr Automobile – Poland’s answer to Indiana Jones. Even this Polish hero was limited by the economic needs of the times. If not for Mr Automobile’s handy uncle, who built a souped-up super car from a crashed Ferrari, the character would have been chasing art thieves in a two-cylinder Syrena.
Ecodesign also has roots going back further than whatever today’s hipsters are thinking up at yard sales. After the war, a group of artists from Zakopane coined the motto ‘piękno niewiele kosztuje’ (‘beauty doesn’t cost much’). The group included Krystyna Tołłoczko (a designer and architect and the creator of Krakow’s Bunkier Sztuki), sculptor Józef Różyski and Maria Bujakowa (pre-war members of Spółdzielnia Artystów Ład, an artist’s collective focusing on embroidery and weaving inspired by traditional folk art). Out of leftovers, they created items meant for everyday use, from wall panels to fur rugs.
Summers after the war were also a moment for ecodesign. Elegant creations sprung out of curtains, tablecloths or even parachutes. The results were impressive enough that a journalist from Moda i Życie Praktyczne (Fashion & Practical Living) suspected that ‘fashion-oriented women are ready to sew new dresses so that they look upcycled’.
After all, Poland’s unofficial motto is: ‘Poles can do it!’ In times of prosperity, like now, most of us spend our energy on other things rather than experimenting with upcycling and ecodesign. It’s still worth searching for inspiration, however, amongst the tried and true practices of our ancestors.
Originally written in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski; translated by AZ, Aug 2019
The FASHIONable in Communist Poland Exhibition at the National Museum in Kraków – Image Gallery