Interview: Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths, Managing Director of the Bergisches Waste Management Association

Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths, Managing Director of the Bergischer Waste Management Association
Photo: Bergischer Waste Management Association

Since 2003, Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths has been the managing director of the Bergisches Waste Management Association. Since 2010 she has also been responsible for the project as a project manager :metabolon project, which as an extracurricular place of learning is closely linked to the local zdi networks. In the podcast "It's all happening now - the future of the circular economyIn an interview with podcast host Anja Kuhn, Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths provides information on current topics in the circular economy, explains terms such as "circular value creation" and goes into the work of the Leppe landfill.

The zdi-Heldinnen-October is also under our annual motto RE•use | RE•duce | RE•cycle – make new from old. We have the topics for that Circular economy and recycling under the magnifying glass taken. You can read an abridged version of the podcast interviews with Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths here, you can listen to the full version in the respective podcast episodes.

The Bergisch Waste Management Association and :metabolon - everything is recycled

Now it's going round - future circular economy - episode 1

Anja Kuhn: "Waste disposal, that doesn't sound like much at first. But what you do is so much more than picking up rubbish!”

Monika Lichtinghagen-Wirths: “Basically, we are responsible for taking over the waste once it has been collected and then of course recycling it accordingly or taking it to Leverkusen for incineration. And since it is our obligation to first of all avoid or recycle waste, we naturally try to get as much out of this waste as possible and to give it to recycling. It's really about avoiding waste in the first place and thus also preserving raw materials for the future.”

That's a super exciting topic. Because they also developed the former Leppe landfill into a completely new, future-oriented location – namely :metabolon. Tell me: What is :metabolon, what does the name stand for and what happens there?

We built this teaching and research center together with the TH Köln. The idea is that we try to save raw materials or to circulate raw materials so that they do not become waste. This is the core of the project and that is why it is also called :metabolon. The term comes from metabolism, i.e. from the conversion of substances, and the title says it all.

When you say you are doing research together with the TH Köln: Can you give us an example of what you are currently researching?

It's about looking at which residues and which waste materials are produced in society and how can I feed them back into the cycle instead of letting them become waste. This is, for example, simply biogenic waste, but there are also, for example, sieve residues from the processing of building rubble. And that's where we're researching with the TH Köln, but also with other partners, both national and international.

Where do you start when it comes to education? I often think: the children are showing us how to do it. Sometimes we adults are much slower when it comes to environmental protection and the children pay much more attention to it than we do.

What we have learned in the last 30 years of waste advice is that children are our best multipliers. And that's why we start with education with the kindergarten child, go through all types of school to convey these topics. But what is also important to us is adult education. We try to convey our topics in such a way that it is understandable for everyone and everyone recognizes how important it is to deal with topics such as resource management, climate protection, energy saving and so on.

The best waste is that which never occurs in the first place

Now it's going round - future circular economy - episode 2

What is the most important point for you when it comes to waste advice?

The most important point is the avoidance of waste. So the best waste is that which is not created in the first place. That's why it's important to really think about: "How can I avoid waste?" And that's why the most important task of waste advice there is to give impulses and tips on how this works.

The biggest challenge when it comes to waste prevention is habits, right?

That's right, but the first step is to create awareness in the first place. Why should I avoid waste at all? People have to be made aware that if they avoid waste, they are also conserving resources. And they must be aware that we only have finite resources, because we are reaching our planetary limits.

I saw that you also work with Repair Cafés.

This is a really great campaign by volunteers who support that you don't have to throw away electronic devices, but that you can repair them yourself. And we are very, very happy to support this campaign.

How can you support that?

We sometimes accept electronic devices that can still be repaired and give them to the Repair Cafés. We promote the Repair Cafés and if they need support, we're happy to help.

The next step is then: exchange instead of buying. I also find the project very exciting.

We ran this as a pilot project at the farm in Hückeswagen. If you have something that is no longer needed, but is actually too good to throw away, you can hand these items over to us. First we put them in a room and then at some point there is a big “swapping frenzy”. Then everyone can come and see if any of it is still needed. And one wonders: Things often come that are still wrapped up, that you bought at some point along the lines of “I could maybe use it one day.” That’s why many people are happy when they can give things away in the bartering frenzy and the hope have that others can use them after all.

Conserve resources - away from the linear and towards the circular economy

Now it's going round - future circular economy - episode 3

The Bergische Quellenschmiede belongs to the Regionale 25 project and ties in with the :metabolon project. For the first time, the focus is on companies as a target group. What is happening at the Bergische Quellenschmiede?

It's about encouraging companies and giving them the impetus to change their actions. Away from linear work, as has been the norm for years and decades, means we have raw materials, we have production processes and we have waste. Action should change towards circular production. And that basically means that you have to think about it in the company: How can I feed raw and residual materials back into the production process? Or: How can I change my production so that as little waste as possible is produced? And not only in the company itself, but also that the products themselves lead to as little waste as possible.

Can companies do this on their own or do they need partners?

It's an absolute rethinking process and that's why they sometimes need help. Especially in Bergisch we are very strongly oriented towards medium-sized companies. And these companies are very happy when they get help from our networks. Research questions very often arise from discussions with companies, because there is often no solution to their problems. We are happy to put you in touch with the professors at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, with whom we work, among other things, at our own research center with the :metabolon institute. This has already resulted in very nice research projects for the companies here in the region.

How quickly does the cooperation between companies and researchers come about?

The entry is usually very quick, since the companies usually have a certain need or even pressure. In some cases, the project outline is available within a week or two and can be submitted. These are mostly waste materials from production that you don't know exactly what to do with. And there is then combined: Which professor fits in? Is it more someone from the field of pyrolysis, gasification, or are processing technologies more in demand? It is very exciting to create this combination again and again, that both entrepreneurs and researchers open their eyes and say: "Yes, that's a great question, we want to research it together now!"

You have already implemented such projects internationally in the past. Can you tell something about that?

Yes, it was about cocoa bean shells in Ghana. We were asked if we had a solution for what to do with these bowls. Because in Ghana and on the Ivory Coast they are applied in large quantities to the fields, killing off the soil organisms. I found that exciting and the TH Köln got involved straight away. They have built small pyrolysis furnaces from scrap, where the cocoa bean shells can be processed and, if necessary, not only heat but also electricity can be produced from them. One of the tasks of the :metabolon project is to put such research results into practice. We look at which actors we need to ensure that the results are implemented. The best success is when you see: It works, the small pyrolysis ovens are installed in Ghana. That is our goal: to see everything implemented in practice.

What I also find so exciting about it: The researchers use the existing resource 'scrap' to build something new out of it and thus conserve resources again.

Basically, that is the overall goal of what we do: It's always about conserving resources. And if it's not only as an input material but also in recycling, that's of course the supreme discipline.   

What is circular value creation?

Now it's going round - future circular economy - episode 4

How can we imagine circular value creation?

Circular value creation came about because we had to realize that our raw materials are finite. This means that we have arrived at our planetary boundaries. Our planet has only limited raw materials, you can use them once and that's it. For this reason, people have thought about it: how can we maintain our standard of living without consuming even more raw materials? That is the aim of circular value creation and it only works if I turn away from linear management towards circular management.

How does this work in practice?

Quite simply by having a completely different "thinking" on the day. One is actually used to having one's pre-supplier for raw materials and one might have one's disposal company afterwards. When it comes to circular economy, I first have to get everyone involved along the entire value chain together. This means that the product designer has to meet with the disposal company even before production begins to consider how the product must be designed so that the disposal company can disassemble it and feed the raw materials back into the secondary cycle. This is called “design for recycling”.

Do you have a specific example?

An example of this are the gray plastic buckets from the Jockey company: They use recyclates, i.e. no primary raw materials made of plastic, but really recycled old plastic. But these are no longer white in color, the recyclate is actually gray in color. But that means I have to take the consumer with me now! The consumer must be willing to accept gray buckets. And that is also the task of our waste advice service, to make the consumer aware and to say: "The gray buckets are made of recyclate, that's a good development and therefore make sure when shopping that you prefer the gray to the white buckets."

You have already said that there are many raw materials that will soon no longer be degradable because they have been used up. A big topic there, I think, are also batteries and mobile phones, displays. How can we achieve a rethink?

A lot of rare earths and gold are built into mobile phones, and our problem is that there are no dismantling instructions yet. Actually, my dream is that cell phones can only be produced if dismantling instructions are included at the same time, so that we, as the disposal company, know exactly how to disassemble the cell phone in order to get the raw materials back. This is not the case at the moment, which is why cell phones like this end up in the shredder and we can no longer access the rare earths and gold. The goal must simply be that – as with Design for Recycling – you think about it beforehand: How can I take products apart again? How can I recycle the raw materials in the back?

There are an incredible number of products that have the “sustainability” stamp on them. Is sustainability actually in everything that says it?

We are currently in the process of developing a new label in the area of ​​the Bergische Quellenschmiede and with other players. My dream would be to develop a traffic light system so that it is immediately clear to every consumer: Is it really a sustainable product or is it a red light? And when I say “sustainability”, it is all the more important to me that you really look at the entire value chain. It's something that really bothers me that the ecological analysis often only looks at sections. In the area of ​​batteries, for example, one should consider: How are they manufactured? How much water does the production use? Is there child labor? And how are they disposed of afterwards? So the entire value chain must be considered. And then we need labels that are so obvious to the consumer that they can choose a product in the store without too much trouble.

Do you have a specific tip on how to immediately distinguish a good, sustainable product from others?

You can't. It's very difficult and I understand that consumers often despair of realizing it. You have to have a corresponding declaration on the product, otherwise you don't stand a chance as a layman. That's why we will do everything in our power to ensure that in the end we have a label that everyone can use to recognize immediately: that's good and that's bad.

What drives you and your team?

Quite simply, that we are aware that we have only borrowed this world from our children and that we have an obligation to give it back in such a way that the next generation can also live in it.

You can find all episodes of the podcast "Now it's happening - future circular economy". here.

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