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  • Dear Readers!

    Many people in Europe could hardly believe the news when they woke up on 24 June to discover a slim majority of Britons had voted in favour of Brexit. Leading economists, politicians, business people, artists and scientists had repeatedly called for the UK to remain in the EU so that the problems of globalisation could be tackled together as one strong community. Their words were in vain; the majority of Britons decided that the best way forward was to take a step back towards the sup­posedly good old days of 'splendid isolation'. No-one at that time, however, could have anticipated that this was just a precursor of an even bigger political earthquake. On 08.11. American voters elected Donald Trump to be their next president. Never before had the country experienced such a populist movement and his comments do not bode well either for the global economy or for a peaceful co-existence between nations. Only time will tell whether or to what extent President Trump will try and change global economic and political structures. Only then will we be able to see what impact this will all have on Europe. However, no matter how much the new President tries to deny the very existence of climate change, there is one thing that is clear right now: the world’s population will continue to grow and the challenges of meeting people’s needs and tackling the planet’s environmental problems will not become easier in the future. Our recommendation to Donald Trump, therefore, would be to take a look at the country of his ancestors – at Germany, where solutions are already being developed to create a sustainable supply of raw materials for the future.  

    Over 40 years ago, when the recycling sector was just beginning to find its feet in Germany (thanks also to the many contributions made by REMONDIS), there were approx. 3.5 billion people living on our planet. At that time, recycling was considered by many to be nothing more than a bit of a gimmick. The world had enough raw materials and plenty of space for storing waste – so why do more than we have to? The human race needed just under 100,000 years to reach 3.5 billion people. This figure has doubled within just 40 years! By 2050, it is expected to rise to 10 billion. The so-called Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year, was even earlier this year: on 08 August. Since then, we have effectively been living as if we have a second planet to fall back on.

    The recycling sector already offers solutions to these problems at a number of different levels: supplying raw materials, generating energy, protecting water supplies and the environment, curbing global warming and even taking on social responsibilities. 14% of the raw materials used in Germany are supplied by the recycling industry, an important step to separating economic growth and the consumption of natural resources from one another. If our production processes are to be sustainable and affordable in the future, then all products and raw materials must be recovered and reused. For this to be possible, however, politicians around the world must drive this development and introduce ambitious laws to ensure it happens. We need higher recycling targets and mandatory ecodesign guidelines that force manufacturers to design their products so that they can be fully recycled once they reach the end of their useful life.

    Recycling would be become mandatory in a future where all raw materials and products – no matter whether it be a smartphone, car or plane – must be designed in line with ecological criteria. Children working in mines in third world countries would be a thing of the past. Wars would no longer be fought to gain access to natural resources. Innovative processes would mean that our wastewater could be used to produce clean drinking water and as a source of phosphorus for fertilisers, building supplies and energy. Collecting and recycling organic waste around the globe and turning it into high quality compost or using it to generate renewable energy would, for the most part, solve the problem of climate change – and also provide great prospects for growth.

    With this optimistic look into the future, may I wish you and your families a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

    Ludger Rethmann

Some districts in Germany still without organic waste bins

For 24 months now, it has been obligatory for organic waste to be segregated from other types of waste and collected separately across Germany. At the moment, however, only around 55% of German households have their own organic waste bin and one eighth of all local authorities have not even set up a separate organic waste collection scheme yet. When asked why they have failed to comply with the law, local politicians primarily give economic reasons to justify their actions – or rather lack of action: their ongoing contracts with waste incineration plants or the high costs involved in setting up a new collection scheme. AHE GmbH and the Ennepe-Ruhr district authorities, however, have demonstrated with their biogas plant in Witten that such schemes can be turned into a profitable business.

Councils shying away from the costs of setting up new schemes

  • Digesting organic waste makes an important contribution towards preventing climate change. Carbon emissions are cut by 4,000 tonnes every year in the Ennepe-Ruhr district alone. Operators of biogas plants are proud of such figures as they underline just how much potential there still is in the recycling sector to protect the environment. And yet these environmental arguments would appear to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the local authorities. They still question whether collecting organic waste separately can be profitable or not. The costs, they say, of setting up a new collection scheme are too high and it would be too complicated to work out the charges.

The German city of Witten is pointing the way

In contrast, AHE managing director, Jürgen F. Ephan, says this is an easy problem to solve. The City of Witten is an excellent example. The local residents there only pay a fee for their residual waste bin, all their other bins are free. “This system works perfectly!” he said. The reason behind this is logical: separating waste streams from each other properly – especially residual and organic waste – reduces the weight of the residual waste bin which, in turn, reduces the fees charged for this bin. The local residents are, therefore, able to directly influence the size of their bill for their residual waste bin.

AHE’s state-of-the-art biogas plant

AHE, a public private partnership between REMONDIS and AVU GmbH, officially opened its biogas plant in Witten in 2013 which is still one of the most modern of its kind in Germany. At the opening ceremony, Johannes Remmel, Environmental Minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, called it “a shining example” – also because it clearly illustrated the advantages of the public and private sectors working together. Indeed, without this collaboration, this investment project would not have been possible. Each year, AHE recycles 25,000 tonnes of organic waste on behalf of the district authorities and supplies 2,000 households with electricity. Besides generating energy, the plant also produces compost and liquid fertiliser which it sells on to its customers.

Digestion costs less than incineration

Were it to be needed, the Witten digestion plant even has the capacity to handle the organic waste from the nearby city of Hagen. Hagen, however, owns a waste incineration plant and has up to now refused to provide its local inhabitants with organic waste bins. The city authorities there fear that they will not have sufficient quantities of residual waste to operate their plant if they introduce a separate collection scheme for organic waste. This is an argument heard all around the country and one that is easy to disprove. By introducing an organic waste collection scheme, Hagen would cut its annual costs by around 750,000 euros – as digesting this waste is about a third cheaper than incinerating it. “It is a complete mystery to me why local authorities do not pass on these savings to their residents,” commented Jürgen F. Ephan.

  • “It is a complete mystery to me why local authorities
    do not pass on these savings to their residents.”

    Jürgen F. Ephan, AHE Managing Director

A response is now needed from politicians

He is, above all, calling for laws to be passed that make the most of the opportunities available. “Unfortunately, the German government’s current term of office has not been one that includes ambitious environmental policies. We will need much greater support if sustainable laws are to be strictly implemented in the future,” he concluded. Each and every day, recycling businesses do all they can to convince local politicians of the need to tackle environmental problems together as well as to make local residents more aware of these issues.

If the environmental ministers of the German states were to carry out their duty and enforce the new law to ensure organic waste was collected separately, then up to four million tonnes of materials could be recycled and reused in the future instead of being lost to us forever in waste incineration plants, as is the case at the moment. At the same time, capacities at the incineration plants would be freed up for other types of waste. Whilst the state ministries claim that importing waste from abroad would lead to an increase in incineration costs, it is in fact the failure to separate paper, glass and organic waste from each other that pushes up the volumes of materials being sent to German incineration plants.

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