€70 Billion Trash Business: Lessons from Germany’s Waste Management system

Have you thought about the value of the waste you produce or the value of the things you so often throw away or discountenance? You probably have not! However, you see, in Germany, waste management is a multibillion-euro economy with an annual turnover of €70 billion. To put that in perspective, the annual turnover of Germany’s waste management sector is more than twice the €32 Billion 2020 federal budget of Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria. More so, according to Germany’sFederal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), in 2018, there were over 11,000 waste management companies, which operated over 15,500 waste management (collection, recovery and recycling) facilities, employing over 270,000 people.

What is even more interesting is the fact that waste management in Germany is self-funded. At the moment, each German citizen pays about 18 cents pay day or (€ 50 annually) to have his/her wastes evacuated and appropriately managed. Perhaps more intriguing is the fact that waste management services are fully contracted to private companies. Private waste operators are paid by relevant regulating or municipal authorities from the fees paid by the users. From waste collection, transportation, sorting, recycling, treatment, dedicated men undertake disposal, and women employed and paid by contracted companies. Dresden, a city of about 500,000 inhabitants and the capital of Saxony Free State has a total of 3,580 bins and streets measuring approximately 1,773 km, which are cleaned regularly

To get a glimpse of the waste management system in the city, 21 fellows from ongoing 43rd UNEP/UNESCO/BMU International Postgraduate Course on Environmental Management at CIPSEM, Technical University (TU), Dresden, Germany set out on an excursion to three waste management-recycling facilities within Dresden City. The three sites were a residual waste treatment plant, a mineral recycling plan and an electronic recycling center. For each of the three sites, there were tons of things to learn, compare and admire. Admire, right, perhaps the enthusiasm, devotion and professionalism with which the workers approached their work, not just to put food on the table, but with clear understanding that the work they do is dignified and strategic to the health and success of their city.

Residual Treatment Plant

This facility located at Hammerweg, Dresden, is residual waste treatment plant that employs a method called “biological, mechanical treatment”. The process is so called because it employs biological methods to dry the wastes and then, sort them mechanically to remove inert- and metal fraction. The treatment facility is operated by Stadtreinigung Dresden GmbH, a private company.

The facility was commissioned in 2001 in response to changes proposed in the German Federal law which outlawed disposal of untreated residual wastes in landfills, especially if it has a high calorific value or a high methane production potential – methane is dangerous GHG. Before that law, Dresden, and indeed Germany, dumped residual wastes in open landfills. The open landfill in Dresden was closed in 2002 just like many other landfills across Germany had to shut down. To show how injurious to the environment landfilling is, eighteen years after closure, the landfill in Dresden still produces methane. However, the methane is efficiently collected through a network of installed systems and used for energy generation. Some landfills remain actively operational today in Germany but they are for the disposal of special wastes such as mineral wastes.

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Biologic-mechanical Waste Treatment Plant, Hammerweg, Dresden, Germany

Stadtreinigung Dresden GmbH collects residual wastes from the entire City from residual bins strategically placed in homes and public places. People also bring their gardening waste to waste-depots located at the entrance of the plant. However, these (gardening) wastes go to another treatment plant to produce compost. The process of treatment is heralded by delivery of residual wastes transported to the facility by specially designed trucks. (In Germany, trucks used in waste delivery carry the special “A” sign). The trucks deliver the waste to the bunker inside the treatment plant after which a thorough cleaning of the vehicle, especially the wheels and compartments, follows. This is to reduce re-contamination.

The wastes are then transported by automated crane systems to the pre-shredding phase where wastes are cut into small pieces to increase surface area for biological action. The next step sees the pre-shredded wastes placed into drying boxes where they are left for some days for rotting to take place. Pumping of air to the wastes follows to take up any organic matter remaining. The wastes are then transported through sieves to separate them into various types and sizes. Furthermore magnetic and eddy current separation for metals and windsifters to get rid of the inert fraction. Mindful of the health of the community, the air is burned to eliminate the remaining organic matter and foul smell before it is released to the environment. Unbelievably, within the neighborhood, you would hardly notice that a waste treatment plant of this magnitude exists.

The facility produces RDF (refuse-derived-fuels) for incineration. The facility also makes extra money by sorting out metals from the residual wastes it receives from the public. These metallic wastes are sold to the metal recyclers in Germany. Other waste fractions from the mix are sold to different processors such as cement factories, lignite factories, and glass manufacturers… So, you see where Euros are coming from?

Apart from this plant, another plant operates in another part of the city that produces biogas from biowastes. The residues from that anaerobic digestion process (which results in biogas production) are of qualities too low to sell to private gardeners. Thus, instead, these residues from the process are sold to landscapers.

Mineral recycling plant

Nordmineral Recycling facility had its own intrigue! Oh, some still think gold, copper etc. are the only minerals! Well, not at all! Sand, ballast, asphalt, stones to mention but a few, are also minerals. Perhaps because Africa is blessed with many precious minerals, we hardly conceptualize that construction wastes could also be a source of minerals!

To be honest, Nordimineral Recycling facility did look like an active quarry. Huge heaps of sand, ballast, building blocks, bricks and others dotted the site. Minimal dust was produced inside of the plant from the giant blocks fed into the huge crusher by one of the caterpillars on site. The facility produces brick dusts of different sizes which are used in construction, landfilling and poultry houses. Large construction blocks are also made from the waste sands and ballast together with cement. These are used as security barriers and to shield riverbeds against floods. The sight of trucks that kept coming and leaving the facility emphasized the importance of the facility. In fact, Germany produces a significant amount of construction wastes. For instance, in 2015, it produced 209 million tons of wastes against 51 million tons of household wastes. This makes a good case therefore to have such a facility that recycles construction and demolition wastes.

Nordimineral Recycling facility was constructed in 1995 at a total cost of $7.5 million. It is operated by Nordimineral Recycling GmbH & Co. KG. The design capacity of the facility is one million tons of mineral wastes annually but currently operates at one-third of its installed capacity. To keep up with the set standards; the plant conducts a monthly testing of the chemical composition for the products coming out of the facility. The dust particles sizes are also closely monitored. The markets for its products are construction companies and Government agencies.

From the look of things, this is a very profitable and strategic sector. So, it begs the question, how does Africa manage her construction waste. Could it be a question of a billion euro loss?

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Mineral Waste sorting and recycling Plant. Nordmineral Recycling GmbH

Electrical and electronics recovery centre 

Lebenshilfe Recycling Facility recycles electrical and electronics waste (e-wastes). In the past few years, e-wastes have grown into a serious environmental concern. What stands out of the facility is the fact that it employs disabled and mentally challenged workers. Thus, this social enterprise innovatively combines job creation/gainful employment, sustainable waste management and social integration. What a business model!

The workers are first trained on dismantling processes and personal protection before undertaking the task. You could not help but notice the very clean and well-organized surrounding of this facility. Its workers were fully kitted and the facility is fitted with special equipment that suck off mercury and other toxic gases produced during the dismantling process. Examples of e-waste processed by the facility include desktop computers, television sets (CRT, LCD, LED etc.), mobile phones, radios, CDs, fans, wires etc.

Dresden produces approximately 2,500 tonnes of electronics wastes out of which 2400 tonnes find their way to the facility. Collection of e-waste is at no cost to the members of the public – members of the public are free to bring their e-waste to the facility. There are also dedicated collection outlets at strategic locations across the city. Wastes collected from different locations within the city are then transported to the facility.

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Electrical and electronic scrap dismantling and sorting

In conclusion, here are some of the other lessons during the trips:

  • Citizenry awareness and attitude to wastes is crucial in developing efficient waste management
  • That waste management sector is a long value chain that creates thousands of opportunities in terms of job, and income both for residents and Government
  • Waste separation is core to achieving efficient municipal waste management
  • Developing countries have huge (and largely untapped) potential to create new value-adding, employment and income opportunities in the waste management sector
  • Unregulated landfilling is a very expensive waste disposal method which leads to loss of economically valuable materials, loss of aesthetic value of land and release of GHGs
  • Construction wastes can be recycled and reused

The experience at these facilities begs the question, how does Africa/Asia or even the Caribbean manage their waste? Should waste be continuously wasted?

by Mr. Idowu Kunlere (Nigeria) and Mr. Peter Wakahora (Kenya)

We are part of the problem: An excursion journey to waste management facilities

Often, we don’t think about our daily consumption and how much waste we generate nor where or how it will go. As long it’s “NIMBY” meaning Not In My Back Yard. As long as it’s out of our sight, we don’t think it’s a problem or at least not our problem. Unless there’s no waste collectors, then it’ll be a problem. According to the Global Waste Management Conference (2017), we produce approximately 2.12 billion tons of waste each year globally. Have you ever thought of what people do with this waste and where it will go to? What about your waste at your home country?

Based on our recent visits to four waste collection, sorting and recycling facilities in Dresden, it was eye-opening and brought up a realization of the ugly truth. I could tell you that it’s not always a pleasant story of how your waste might go or where it might end up? If you’re lucky, your government takes good care of these issues for you by creating effective approaches and efficient waste management systems. One thing that stood out and we find amazing is the fact that by law, no waste that enters a landfill is not treated. This regulation gives so much benefits to the environment, social well-being and economy, saved the cost from reducing the emission of C02 to the atmosphere and other environmental and social impacts that would result from unsustainable waste management practices.

After the field trip, we have realized the ugly truth. The truth that shall spread out to each individual in the world, especially policymakers and households in developing countries. The realization of how much waste we generate, how much resources and energy is needed and/or used to produce these products, energy, and resources to sort and treat those products when it becomes waste. Waste management operations here in Germany are so advanced and well managed compared to most developing countries. Some facilities may run down a little bit and may not be at their perfect performance and may need to do some renovations, but they do manage to run the system smoothly. I was day-dreaming to see how good it would be to bring these facilities and systems, including all the technologies and equipment to my country. Personally, I feel very guilty of seeing our daily use products laying in the waste collection facilities and its life cycle. Not to mention the danger of chemicals and hazardous waste.

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Biologic-mechanic waste treatment plant

Generally, Germany has strong regulations, law enforcement and implementations regarding waste management systems (waste collection, sorting, treatment, and recycling system). This may be related to the fact that Germany is part of the European Union, therefore, additional rules are needed to oblige to meet the EU standard. I noticed that most cities in Germany, the municipalities managing their own waste rather than depending on private companies. Moreover, there is active public participation from the local government, local people, the church, and other institutions. Despite having strict regulations on waste management, Germany has the available advanced technologies, financial resources, strong commitments, and human resources to make all this possible.

In contrast, everything seems to fail and far from success in the way we manage our waste in developing countries, although there are well-structured regulations and guidelines regarding waste management. It’s hard to pin exactly where or what went wrong. Many people may argue that waste management systems in developing countries failed mainly because of corruption, poverty, weak governance, education, lack of political will, lack of financial support, lack of human resources, or lack of access to advanced technologies. But personally, I think we are lacking of local people initiatives, participation and rightfulness perspective on waste. Waste to us is trash, we don’t see the value of waste nor the benefits of well managed and well treated waste.

An example from recent news in Cambodia that could illustrate how one person (lack of long-term thinking) could dangerously impact public health and the surrounding environment. On 31st January 2019 in Sihanoukville province, Cambodia, the Minister of commerce made a big scene of burning 25 tons of imported white garlic from China that contained high chemical substances (Disulfoton) which is used for insecticide in agriculture. The burning of these illegal toxic products took place at an open-air landfill in Sihanoukville surrounded by many people watching and taking pictures. We are talking about a Ministerial position that is undertaking this action, someone that holds big power, someone that actually could make a change. The purpose of this act of burning those imported chemicals white garlic is to protect public health, but I guess they didn’t think about the impact of burning these products with a normal temperate in an open-air at a dump site. Imagine how much chemical gas was generated and polluted from this unstandardized burning in an open space? What is the social and environmental impact on the nearby community?

To conclude, we (human) have over exploited our natural resources so much by trying to provide products, services, and technologies to meet our lifestyle and demands. We have come closer to the point where any move we make could lead to a point where there’s no return. Our style of living and choices of consumption are the problems. We need to rethink and reassess our taste of styles, our daily choices before we purchase by considering not only the price tag but where they came from, what value did it add to your life, how will it go after a certain period of time. Shall we blame the growing population, the need to meet our basic daily requirement, societies that desire for better lifestyles, innovations that make lives easier? You may not know the exact answer of all these questions, but it’s a good start to become responsible consumers or learn to adapt products life cycle thinking in taking part for our environmental solutions through practicing environmentally friendly behaviors such as support and use of organic products, reuse, recycling, living the minimal lifestyle and think of the products life cycle before purchasing it.

We also would like to show our gratitude and sincere thanks to Dr. rer. nat. Dietmar Lohman and the CIPSEM team for their hard work to make these field trip studies possible and to make sure we maximize our learning opportunity and time here in Dresden. Thank you.

by Ms. Sreymoch Bun (Cambodia) & Ms. Haili Zhou (China)

Excursion to Waste Management and Recycling Facilities

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In Saxony waste management involves many stakeholders (including private, public and PPP`s) and has a very interesting social aim. Led by Dr. Dietmar Lohmann, we had two days of excursions (January 31st and February 1st) to many waste management facilities.

It was very interesting to know more about the German management model, in which consumers and producers are economically responsible for waste management. The inclusion of handicapped people in waste business was nice and surprising, becoming definitely a role model to be analyzed and implemented in developing countries.

We had the opportunity to see new technologies for bio-waste treatment, like the quick fermentation chambers at the composting facility. Although it is important to mention that some other processes at this facility, like compost maturation and marketing, surely can be improved.

In developing countries may be difficult to find waste to energy projects, but here in Germany we had the chance to visit a landfill-gas utilization project, in which biogas was transformed into energy for the grid.

Also we were impressed by the willingness of Germans for buying recycled products, as we saw the success of PAKA, a cardboard recycling company with more than 100 years of history. We have to highlight the way they market their products and find specific and lucrative niches.

These excursions were a wonderful experience for us, but also a great chance to have nice moments with our fellows.

by Gabriela de Jesús Fernández Tay (Cuba) & Eduardo Esteves (Ecuador)

Water treatment and excavation material management

Today Dr. Willscher from the chair of groundwater and soil remediation took the group under her wing and to the lignite open-pit mining site Nochten in the northern Upper Lusatian region. Here, the participants learned how water used in the mining process is treated and what happens with the excavation material.

(Photos: T. Karp)