WARSAW - Poland can be a messy and dirty country in every sense of those two words -- but mainly, it’s just literally dirty. Forests, parks, squares, roadsides, ditches, rivers and corners are full of wrappings, rubbish and feces.

Poles sometimes complain, but in the end they can't really blame others, because they are the ones who have turned their country into a rubbish dump. They also make unhappy comparisons with tidy and neat Germany, but get depressed at the mere thought of establishing German-like rules and regulations in Poland.

The neverending comparisons to Germany and of other citizens of supposedly tidy Western European countries undermines Polish dignity. Recently, an activist with the conservative Law and Justice party lamented at how much higher the prices of rubbish collection are in Polish cities than in the German city of Munich. Of course, he didn't calculate the fact that people in Munich actually separate their trash for recyclables.

In Monki, Poland - Photo: Henryk Borawski

Though more and more Poles talk about recycling, only a small number actually do it. There are proposals to force citizens in Poland to pay fines if they fail to separate their trash, but will it actually change their attitudes?

Only a much deeper cultural revolution can really change Poles' attitudes toward how trash is to be handled.

All the fuss over waste management seems to clash with a basic Polish sense of justice: why do owners of bigger premises and properties have to pay more? Square footage does not necessarily correspond to the number of people who live or work in a place, nor to the amount of trash that is produced.

Some have suggested, instead, a head tax for rubbish. But we quickly found out that this is not a symptom of some uniquely Polish sense of egalitarianism, but an occasion for revealing their unsurpassed cleverness. For it is much easier to measure the size of a house than to determine how many people live inside.

In Krakow - Photo: Ann Baekken

Nobody in the media talks or writes about ordinary Poles' tendency toward either untidiness or underhandedness. We prefer instead to shift the blame onto politicians or speak in the most general terms. But as it seems rather improbable that Martians are the ones dumping all the trash in the forests, roadsides, rivers and brooks, we might have to start looking at the decent but proud people of Poland.

After 1918, Poles were happy that they had regained independence. But some said it was the happiness one gets in regaining their own dumping ground. Nearly a quarter of a century after a new air of independence, there is finally a chance to clean up this dump once and for all. But to do it, the people will have to overcome old habits, whose traces are scattered all across the Polish landscape.

*A professor of Department of Philosophy and Sociology, Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland.