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Meet IIIEE researcher Mikael Backman

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Photo: IIIEE researcher Mikael Backman

From waste to green gold: Lund's role in the transition of one of Europe's most polluted cities

Malgorzata Mańka-Szulik, mayor of Zabrze in Poland, was impressed with what she saw – a city with a waste management system resulting in as little as 3 per cent waste going to landfills.

“She looked at me and said: ‘I want my city to be like Lund. How long will it take us?’”

Mikael Backman, lecturer at the International Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) in Lund, continues: “I had to be honest, so I told her that Sweden has more than 40 years of experience of waste management as the result of a long and dedicated journey including both private and public actors. But I also said that we were more than happy to assist Zabrze in their transition.”

There was without a doubt a great need for it. Around ten years ago, the formerly prosperous mining and steel era of Zabrze was definitely over. From peaking at twelve coalmines a few decades earlier, one by one had been shut down, leaving behind what was seen as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Waste management was unheard of, with around 85 per cent ending up in landfills. Zabrze was in urgent need of a green shift. 

“Zabrze and Lund had by then already been twin cities for a number of years, but the practical outcomes of the relationship were few. Larry Andow, a municipal councillor in Lund, called for action and asked the IIIEE to contribute.” At the request of the deputy prime ministers of Poland and Sweden and with support from the two embassies, IIIEE and Mikael Backman established the Swedish-Polish Sustainable Energy Platform in 2009 with funding from the Swedish Energy Agency. The mission was to facilitate and promote energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

“Our offer from the IIIEE as a research institute was to provide Zabrze with top expertise about waste management and other urban issues that were included in the platform, aiming for the development of a sustainable city. Since 2009, IIIEE Master’s students are annually invited to do field work on an urban topic in Zabrze, resulting in a report assisting the city administration”, says Mikael Backman.

And IIIEE students have indeed influenced the municipal administration. The student report from 2014, “Smart Zabrze”, highlighted the possibilities and opportunities for a new city district with a high sustainability profile. Zabrze is currently implementing that proposal through an urban development project, aiming to attract innovation agents to the area. “We know that study visits to the Western Harbour area in Malmö, Brunnshög in Lund, and H+ in Helsingborg have inspired Zabrze substantially”, says Mikael Backman. 

But Sweden has also gained from Zabrze’s ongoing transition. “It has opened a new door to Swedish market actors. As in all EU countries, the Polish public sector is regulated by public procurement when it comes to investments, but still, I’d say the platform has been the key to a few large Swedish investments in Zabrze during the past five years. Their next step is to procure and build a large state-of-the-art biogas plant, which will work as a model for future biogas investments in Poland.” “And of course, we hope that a Swedish company will win that procurement contract”, says Mikael Backman.

Swedish technological products and know-how have been crucial to Zabrze’s new green era. But according to Mikael Backman, the change in mindset may have been even more important.
“The development of waste management in Zabrze is a good example. The new biogas plant is to be powered by food waste from households, which Poland has never before collected at this level. For this project to succeed, not only must containers for waste be distributed and collected – the citizens must also accept and understand why they should contribute and how to do it, in practical terms. A great behavioural change is needed, or else the new plant is not going to function”, says Mikael Backman.

“So to achieve real change, we have inspired the Zabrze city administration to work with education as a tool, all the way from pupils in elementary school to leaders of the city. Today, I’d say that the mindset shift among citizens as well as with the city administration is the most important contribution of Lund and IIIEE to the ongoing transition in Zabrze.”

Text and photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson

Read more:

IIIEE Master’s student reports on Zabrze

Waste Management in Zabrze - Pathways to a more Sustainable System (2011)

Biogas production in Zabrze – Closing the cycle of organic waste (2012)

Smart Zabrze - Building on a mine of opportunities (2014)

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International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE)

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