Interview: “Stop discharges directly at source”
Dr. Bernhard Bauske has been active in the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Germany since 1993 and has been Project Coordinator for "Marine Litter" in the Marine Conservation department since 2017. His work focuses on coordinating projects to reduce plastic waste, improving waste management systems and packaging design. Before joining WWF, the biologist completed his doctorate at the Institute of Soil Science in Hamburg.
Mr Bauske, WWF's "Marine Litter" section deals with the issue of plastic in the environment. What do you see as the causes and what solutions is the WWF pursuing?
The causes of plastic entering the environment are manifold, but the most important reason is the increasing use of plastic as a short-lived product or packaging in combination with a non-functioning waste management system in many countries. Other causes include the global spread of microplastic particles and sea-based discharges, such as lost fishing nets. Plastic is not biodegradable or only biodegradable over very long periods of time, and it thus accumulates in our environment with the known consequences, e.g. harm to marine life and seabirds from ingesting plastic particles.
WWF is working on three levels to combat the flood of plastic. First, it wants to achieve an agreement at international level that takes effective action against plastic pollution. At the second level, national laws to improve waste management must come into force. Of particular importance here are regulations on Extended Producer Responsibility, in which those placing products and packaging on the market must also assume responsibility for the collection, sorting and recycling of waste. At the third level, WWF initiates and supports model projects to avoid single-use packaging and improve waste management. Here, WWF has successfully implemented and launched projects in some countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam.
WWF is active with various projects in countries where most plastic waste enters the oceans and is fighting there to stop the discharges at source. A model project in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta served as a blueprint for the APEC guide – which we report on in the previous article. It provided an implementation aid to establish functioning waste disposal systems in smaller cities and communities with simple means. What has been your experience here?
Before the start of the model project, waste in the model region was inadequately collected or was collected unsorted. All waste was then mostly dumped on unsecured landfills. Therefore, the goal of the model project was defined as the separate collection of individual waste fractions at household level and the separate recycling of these fractions. The focus was on bio-waste, which was at that time mixed with other waste and thus made unsuitable for composting. First, a waste management concept was developed for Long An province, in which the technical implementation of separate waste collection was worked out with local decision-makers and stakeholders after having taken full stock of the situation. Economic, social and ecological aspects were taken into account. In the provincial capital Tan An, separate waste collection was initially introduced as a model for 400 households and then expanded to 4,500 households. This was accompanied by WWF with extensive training and educational measures. The sorting rate in the project area is very good at 85%. The amount of recyclable materials collected was relatively small, as these materials are passed on directly by households to local waste collectors. Plastics are collected separately in the project mainly during post-sorting of residual waste. Overall, a high-quality organic fraction was obtained for composting and the residual waste fraction was significantly reduced. This also led to a reduction in the cost of disposing of the residual waste fraction. In the meantime, separate waste collection is being extended to the entire urban area of Tan An and is also to be implemented in the entire province of Long An. In this pilot project from 2018 to 2022, WWF has successfully demonstrated that the labour-intensive separate collection of municipal waste with immediate subsequent sorting by municipal waste collection employees is very suitable for households and small businesses. This model project with its results is also expected to support a new law in Vietnam that will require separate collection of all waste in the country from 2024.
In which areas do you think changes are necessary - not only in Asia, but also in Germany and Europe - in order to fundamentally and effectively reduce the discharge of plastics into the environment?
The first step, of course, is to avoid the short-lived application of plastics. This means, for example, introducing restrictions on the use of single-use articles and the introduction of reusable and return systems. For certain applications, there is the possibility of making plastics available again for applications of equivalent quality through high-grade recycling. Unfortunately, this possibility has so far been limited to a few applications because most plastics have very different compositions and are therefore difficult to recycle. Harmonising the diversity of materials could have a positive effect here, making even more plastic products available for high-quality recycling. Downcycling or a drift from high-quality recycling materials to short-lived or no longer recyclable applications should be avoided in the future.
In principle, it must be ensured that nationally adapted legislation on Extended Producer Responsibility is introduced globally in those countries where this is not yet the case. In addition, existing legal frameworks must be improved, e.g. by levying charges on packaging and products according to their recyclability or other ecological parameters. To begin with, this approach will ensure improved financing of waste management and optimisation of recycling. This would be an important step towards improving waste management systems - and thus also an important step towards reducing the discharge of plastics into the environment.
Thank you very much for the interview, Mr Bauske!