Interview with Dr. Jürgen Stäudel, Expert for Strategic Planning in Waste Management at the MoE

This week, we spoke with Dr. Jürgen Stäudel, Expert for Strategic Planning in Waste Management embedded at the Ministry of Environment. Dr. Stäudel is an expert on waste management and has a long history of working in the sector in various capacities in Cambodia. Most recently, he participated in a trade mission during which several German waste management companies visited the Kingdom to look for opportunities in the sector. Read on to learn how Cambodia's waste management sector is changing by the day!

EuroCham: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you became involved in waste management in Cambodia?

Jürgen: My name is Jürgen Stäudel and I studied civil engineering in Germany with a focus on wastewater treatment and waste treatment, before getting my PhD in environmental engineering. In 2000, I came to Phnom Penh as a student and worked on a small-scale composting facility at the old dump site in Stueng Meanchey, before the current one existed. 

I worked a lot with the local waste picker community. We were building up a small-scale composting facility, mainly focusing on organic waste produced from markets. And that was when I fell in love with Cambodia, actually. The most important things which I needed to understand about solid waste management, I learned in Cambodia, and a lot of that was from the waste pickers on the dump site. So I'm deeply grateful to Cambodia, to the waste pickers, to the people here who helped me on my career path.

EuroCham: Things must have looked very different 23 years ago!

Jürgen: Very much so. The highest building in Phnom Penh at that time was the Royal Palace on the riverfront. Diamond Island was the city’s vegetable garden. If we were developing the city from that point now, we would think of sustainable urban planning, we would keep that as a vegetable garden to supply the city.

We could also have a circular economy in terms of recycling nutrients, apply it again in horticulture and agriculture, and actually have a cycle of nutrients in the form of food and vegetables and compost within the city. But when sustainable urban planning is not really happening in the world, we have to still think in other dimensions.

EuroCham: Where did your career and studies take you from that point?

Jürgen: After my student thesis, I went back to Germany and worked there and in many places in Africa. I received my PhD in integrated sanitation systems at Bauhaus-University Weimar, Germany, after my work on a research project in Mongolia. But in between, I always kept coming back to Cambodia, working as a freelancer. I found some projects which were related to solid waste management and so I have a very good overview of that and how it’s changed over the last 23 years.

In the year 2000, within the cities, you had a lot of rubbish and often it was not collected. People were burning rubbish in the streets and when you went outside of Phnom Penh, everything was clean. There was no rubbish, there was almost no plastic. And now it's the opposite. Now the cities are cleaner and outside the city there is more rubbish.

EuroCham: Everyone seems to think it's so hard to live without plastic, but you saw it in 2000. What did people use instead?

Jürgen: They used more traditional materials like banana leaves, and people were of course consuming in a different way. They were not consuming what they consume now. People didn't have the money to buy potato chips or chocolate or other snacks. All that stuff wasn't available, none of that was there. Of course, people were much poorer at that time. So there is a huge development ongoing, not only in the urban areas. Rural areas are still quite behind, but in the cities, it's improved drastically.

EuroCham: People often think about plastic when considering the global waste management problem, and it’s been a recent priority of the Ministry of Environment. However, wet waste management is perhaps even more important. Why is that?

Jürgen: Plastic is of course the most visible one because it sticks around forever. I fully understand why the Ministry of Environment picked plastic for the moment as a campaign because it has such a negative impact on the environment and it's so visible and ubiquitous in Cambodia.

So, that's a very important aspect. However, when we look at solid waste management as a whole, we have to look at the waste composition to get the full picture of what waste management actually requires.

And we talk a lot about recycling and waste to energy. Many people talk about plastic recycling and we forget the main part of mixed solid waste and the main recyclable contained in solid waste, which is actually organic waste.

Currently, in Cambodia, we have a waste composition where 50% to 65% of the total waste is organic waste. And organic waste actually is the only waste which is really easily and fully recyclable. Metals are recyclable, but it requires a lot of energy. Most of the plastics are not really recyclable or only down-cyclable and have lower value once they are recycled.

Human beings and every living being on this planet are the best example of that, because we are, in fact, as we sit in here, recycled organic waste. We're eating food and our body consists of the food that we're eating. Our body is more or less recycled organic waste, which comes from the fields, of nature. Plants degrade and form the organic matter in the soil, which becomes plants again, and that's what we're eating. Plus, of course, the water that we drink and the air that we breathe. We are inseparable from organic waste and from nature.

When we mix organic waste, we create huge problems due to many reasons. Currently, we mix waste together with other kinds of waste, which makes the organic part invaluable, as well as the contained recyclables in waste invaluable.

If you put organic waste in a plastic bag, let it stick around for a while, and then try to remove the organic waste from the plastic bag, it's a mess. You would need to clean the plastic bag, it takes a lot of water and it's a huge effort to get them separated again. It’s very inefficient and expensive to do that, and that's the reason why we're not doing it.

Once that stuff is all put together in a landfill, the organic waste will degrade in a form that leads to the leaching of toxins into water. The conditions at the landfill normally lack oxygen and after a process called hydrolysis, waste becomes kind of watery and very acidic.

So it turns into a lot of organic acids and the acids of course, with a very low pH value, lead to the mobilization of all kinds of toxic substances, for example, heavy metals. They would normally stay in the soil, but they become mobile and soluble, go into the water and then they can go into the groundwater.

There is also methane production which leads to the fact that we have huge greenhouse gas emissions on dump sites. That's why waste management is such an important sector to reach the national climate goals.

Such conditions can actually lead to self-inflammation of dump sites. The conditions are such that dumpsites can start to burn just by themselves. Once a dump site is very difficult to stop it from burning because it continues to burn underground. And that of course leads to very toxic emissions such as dioxins which just occur when waste is burning on dump sites.

EuroCham: You recently participated in a waste management delegation trip to Cambodia. What insights into the sector did you find on this mission?

Jürgen: I think the most important is that there is strong interest from these companies to offer something to Cambodia. Cambodia could definitely be a market for international investors, recyclers, composters, all kinds of companies or consultants who are working in the solid waste management business and circular economy business.

Second, there is good momentum in Cambodia because there is an increasing number of people who are aware of these issues and who understand the need for change. Third, we have relatively well-developed legislation at the national level.

In Cambodia, however, we have a lack of implementation of that law, and that leads again to the first point. The companies are interested in investing here but they are hesitant or they can't because they're not sure if they will get a return on their investment, or if they're actually able to run a business here.

One of the main preconditions for our business and solid waste management is that we need some form of separation at source, at the household level. We need to make sure that people understand why it is important to separate organic waste from the rest.

Why do I talk about organic waste? Because A) organic waste is 50 to 65%. And once it is mixed with the other we can't really separate it. B), if the organic content is so high, even with high technology, it is almost impossible to separate the different materials and it would be too expensive.

So we need to reduce the amount of organic waste in the mixed waste to well below 30%. And then we can apply sorting techniques. Then we can build a sorting facility. Then we can think of recycling, and then we can think of waste to energy.

In order for these companies who participated in the trade delegation to really step in and help Cambodia solve the problem, we need to do some homework here. And that means making people understand how to separate waste, plus making sure that everybody pays waste collection fees. No exception.

EuroCham: That sounds like it could be tricky to implement.

Jürgen: Well, you can involve law enforcement. Twenty years ago, when I came here the first time, I wasn't sure, do Cambodian people actually drive on the left side or on the right side? (laughing) Now, it’s much, much better than 20 years ago. Now people are actually driving on the right side and also people are wearing helmets on their motorbikes.

Why is that? It's not because all of them understood that it's safer to drive around with a helmet. Many do it because they would get fined if they don’t wear a helmet. So, we have to apply this for organic waste.

For waste management in general, everybody has to pay. If not, you get fined. Second, everybody has to separate. If not, you would get fined. This is how it works in many countries, such as Germany. But of course, we have to start with awareness raising and education in the first place.

EuroCham: Is there a base fee you have to pay regardless, even if you are separating?

Jürgen: First of all, people must have good service. So the service must be reliable. People must understand when the waste collection truck is coming when they have to put out the waste, and in what form. Second, people should get an incentive to separate waste. So when you separate waste, you probably would have to pay less fees.

Then you would understand, OK, I can save some money if I separate. And the other way around, of course, if people are not doing this, then we would need to fine them. But first, start with giving them incentives and explaining it so that it's easy to follow.

You will never get 100% of the people, that's also clear. But for example, what happens in cities in Germany, the waste service provider, they really look into the bin and check what is inside the bin.

And if they can see if a lot of the wrong kind of waste is in the wrong bin. They would first be polite, inform the household that they need to change, and if they don't change then in the next step they will be fined. That’s something that we could do here as well. People are wearing helmets, so it does work.

EuroCham: What are the main issues in the sector in Cambodia, if we can boil it down to a few?

Jürgen: I think the main issue at the moment is the awareness raising, the implementation of the laws and the separation at source plus the separate collection from the service provider, and then the rest of the investment that can come. Fee collection is also an issue.

EuroCham: I don’t think the service providers do any waste separation at the moment do they?

Jürgen: No, well separate collection is actually required by the law, and citizens are asked by the law to separate waste at the household. However, the waste collection companies have no incentive to change. First of all, they don't have an area where they, for example, can do composting. So even if they would separate, they say they don't have space available.

But most important, actually, is that they get paid by the ton of waste which they bring to the landfill. So they have no incentive whatsoever to change the way the collection is set up. What we need to do is to install so-called gate fees.

A gate fee is a fee that kicks in once the waste arrives at the landfill and crosses the border of the landfill. So that's why it's called a gate fee. In fact, what is happening is that the ownership of the waste goes from the collector over to the landfill management company.

And the gate fee normally would be different for mixed waste than for waste which is not mixed. For instance, in Germany and most of the European countries we have a law that only waste with a maximum amount of 5% organic content can be dropped off at a municipal landfill.

If you want to bring waste with a high organic load to a landfill you are either not allowed or you pay a lot. Why do you pay a lot? Because you bring in a lot of organics, you create leeching problems in the ground water and you produce air pollution and treatment costs on the landfill go up.

EuroCham: What would an ideal, highly evolved waste management system look like in Cambodia?

Jürgen: In Cambodia we have a policy (Sub-decree 113 from 2015) which is based on the 3R principle: reduce, reuse, recycle. And the waste hierarchy actually indicates where we should put most of the effort of the waste management system and where we should put less effort.

If we would apply this theory 100%, almost nothing would go to the landfill. And in fact, this is what's happening in some places like in Germany. We have reduced the amount of waste that's going to the landfill to a very small portion.

And this is possible, because we sort out first organics, and once the rest of the waste is cleaner, we can apply sorting techniques. So the recyclables get removed. And the rest, which can still be quite a lot -- in Germany around 30 to 40% of the waste -- can then at least be burned and energy can be recovered, in case it has a high caloric value.

Only a small amount of the ashes that are left over then actually go to the landfill. Since 2005, we have a law in Germany where only waste with less than 5% organics is allowed to go in a landfill and that reduces all kinds of emissions of course. The rest is already out before it goes to the landfill.

Construction waste, e-waste, hazardous waste are anyway collected separately and treated according to its composition.

EuroCham: How can anyone get started on this journey of reforming waste management in Cambodia? What can the average person do?

Jürgen: Separate organics. If possible, people can do home composting. If they have a garden or something, they can do that. It’s something you can learn, don’t just don't throw it in the garden, learn how to do composting properly.

People can keep plastics, glass, and metal separate and can give it to the informal sector, to the “edjai” [informal waste pickers]. Some of them will take it. You make life easier for them.

Even if the waste is not necessarily separated at the landfill at the moment, it’s still worth it to separate at home because it builds up the habit of doing it.

EuroCham: Could you talk a little bit about the upcoming German-funded waste separation project? Why is this an exciting development for the sector?

Jürgen: It’s exciting because it just comes at the right moment in time and it fills some gaps that we have here in Cambodia. It’s called Green Growth Initiative for Circular Economy in Solid Waste Management and it will start in October next year.

The BMZ [German federal government] committed to it during the German-Cambodian bilateral government negotiations in October 2023. It is a $3 million project for the segregation of waste, organic waste, and composting/biogas on a local level at selected municipalities.

It's a relatively small project, with three outputs. One output focusses on the national level to support policymaking and support capacity building in the national structures. Outputs two and three would then focus more on the pilot area to set up structures in the municipality or municipalities, but its not yet decided where. We’d work to set up the legal structures including local bylaws, and a fee collection system,  ideally using a digital tool and the already existing digital platform for Solid Waste Management owned by the Ministry of Environment, awareness raising and education and more.

There are a lot of existing structures and projects we can already build on, but the details are not yet decided. If all partners and the citizens are joining and cooperating well, we would like to start the separate collection of organic waste and separate treatment of organic waste for composting. Assuming it will be successful, it could serve as a model for many municipalities in Cambodia. So that’s exciting.

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