Content type: Interview
Credit: Interview by Johanna Günzl, alumna, MA Industrial Design and winner of the Industrial Design Department award for her thesis Hidden Kingdoms: Exploring the Uncharted Paths of the Hyperobject
Year: 2019

As part of her research into microplastics for her thesis Hidden Kingdoms: Exploring the Uncharted Paths of the Hyperobject, Johanna Günzl interviewed Dr Ulrich Werneke, zoologist, biologist and head of the Nature Protection Facility in Rees-Bienen. They discussed microplastics as a pollutant in the Rhine, the difficulties of collecting data and changing the public's perception of this river's assumed cleanliness.

‘We still know so little about how microplastics behave and need much more research.’
Dr Ulrich Werneke

Area of research diagram by Johanna Günzl

Johanna Günzl: Thank you for taking out the time for this interview. I was very glad that you reacted to my email because, when I contacted the City of Rees, I only received rejections.

Dr Ulrich Werneke: That is odd. The microplastics crisis is something that should concern everybody. It surely concerns us here at the nature protection. Especially microplastics that can be found in the Rhine, which are interesting because they affect the environment and the aquatic biospheres of the Rhine on a local scale.

JG: Also, when I talked to locals, I found that there was not a big interest in this topic—even though there was a lot of media attention a few years ago when it was discovered that the biggest microplastic contamination in the Rhine was found in Rees.

UW: I think it depends on how much people are personally affected. Well, yes, it is presented in the media, but after a short while, when the media stops reporting about it, the focus of attention shifts.

The topic of microplastics would probably have to be presented much more often in the media to create public awareness. The biggest problem is that microplastics are invisible. It is not a big pile of garbage in people’s front yard that annoys them. It is more like the nitrous gases or the ozone layer. In 1982, Sandoz, a big producer of chemicals, spilt its waste into the Rhine, the fish died and floated to the surface. Today the Rhine still smells and is polluted, but you have to get much closer to notice it. So, the obvious, direct impact became invisible. But all the chemicals and heavy metal particles are still there and will drift from the sediments to the water surface as the next high tide arrives. But hardly anyone is interested in this.

People's appreciation for nature doesn’t include sparing it from their trash—this is schizophrenic

JG: Why don’t we seem to care about what happens to the Rhine?

UW: After the glacial periods, the Rhine shaped this landscape significantly. It has an extremely important meaning to this region. But due to flooding, the Rhine has also always been a threat to the inhabitants and dyke building has a very high priority. The Rhine has always been a meaningful shipping lane representing a flourishing economy. But on the other hand, it has also been the rural sewage system. In the 1980s, you could recognise the Rhine from afar by its stench. There were so many chemicals in the water that you could develop your photographs in there. So, the Rhine has extremely mixed associations, and its beauty alone isn't enough to stimulate people to protect it. Especially the contemporary generations do not know the Rhine the way it used to be—pure, full with fish populations. The Rhine is not an ideal anymore that can be used to trigger environmental awareness.

Günzl says "The Sandoz-accident of 1986 happened in times of extreme political sensitization and mobilisation. This poster was a call for a protest march."

JG: How do these mixed feelings towards the Rhine express themselves in people's behaviour?

UW: We have a lot of “wild-west” kind of tourism here. The people choose the most beautiful locations to hang out—these are oftentimes the ones where we are trying to protect nature—and leave a massive amount of trash behind; single-use BBQs, bottles, packages. This is a huge problem that we have been trying to fight for years. And it shows a very conflicted relationship that people have with the natural environment: their appreciation for the beauty of nature doesn’t include saving it from their trash and pollution. To me, this is schizophrenic.

JG: Why don’t we feel more responsible for our trash?

UW: I don't think people have malicious intentions; they just don’t have any feeling about it. They might be unconscious of the effect of their actions or just do not see a relation between action and effect. This is why we focus on creating awareness; it is the first important step.

JG: Where should we start eliminating microplastics? Should we tackle the problem at its source by preventing their production, or should we try to clean the Rhine and ocean?

UW: I think the second will never succeed. To eliminate what is in there already is impossible because these particles are only nanometers in size, and I would have to filter huge amounts of water selectively to prevent fishing out plankton or organic suspended sediments. That is very unrealistic. I only see the chance to approach the problem at its source. But I think we are not even there yet. We do not even know where most of the plastic comes from.

It could be that certain products will become more expensive because microplastics may be prohibited in certain production processes

Plastic is based on oil, so it is hydrophobic to water. Couldn’t we use this property to filter microplastic from water with special nets/filters/ robot fishes (whatever there is in the future) to collect the hydrophobic microplastics?

Field research image by Günzl that shows the Rhine looking clean and pristine with no visible evidence of plastic pollution

UW: There are many hydrophobic particles in the river that are crucial to the ecosystem and which you would then filter out together with the microplastics. So, the trick would be to select the microplastics from the benign particles in the way an antibiotic recognises bacteria, for instance. The second step would then be to aggregate all the small particles into bigger clods that are easier to fish out. This would probably need to happen with chemical substances that are harmless to the river's ecosystem. It is an interesting idea, and it would need international research collaborations between biologists and chemists to work on this.

JG: Scientists are finding an increase in the concentration of microplastics downstream of bigger cities. Wouldn’t it be an idea to measure downstream of all big industrial facilities to understand better which companies and cities cause the most serious pollutions?

UW: That would be an enormous amount of work. You would have to measure upstream and downstream of each industrial facility and each Rhine inflow. It could be a way to understand the problem better. But we also need to study loads of other things, such as how high are the freight rates, how much microplastic sinks into the Rhine sediment. We still know so little about how microplastics behave.

Only when people see it with their own eyes will they do something. And we do our best to show them. A few weeks ago, my team and I took part in the Rhine-clean-up, an initiative and cooperation between cities along the Rhine to clean it for one day a year. We were about 50 people, along with the city chancellor. There were also some children with their parents, and that is extremely important. We will do it again and again, just to keep showing people how much trash there is in the Rhine, and, hopefully, this will create some awareness. Constant dripping wears the stone.

JG: What makes people change their behaviour? Will we change only after we have become sick from plastic?

UW: Yes, you can indeed wonder about this! There is a river spot close by where many people swim—although it is just downstream of a water treatment plant. Because of that, the people think the water is clean, but they are completely unaware of what the plant does not clean.

JG: What else is needed to change our behaviour towards the environment?

UW: It is important to have the right policies in place, and I am very glad the European Union has shown its commitment to fight plastic pollution. What is decided in Brussels affects all industries and farmers here in Germany, which is a huge eco-political advantage of the EU. But we also need to learn how to generally refrain from using plastic packaging and single-use plastics. This will basically feel like a lower living standard.

It could be that certain products will become more expensive because microplastics may be prohibited in certain production processes. This is all very uncomfortable for us. But we are more than 7 billion people on this planet, and if all countries are longing for a comparable life standard to the one in Germany or Holland, we all need to lower our sights. But people often do not like to hear this. Sometimes, it needs artists, designers and media experts to really get this message across. This is the time of collaboration, and I am really curious about where your project is leading.