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BONUS RETURN had its final seminar - we spoke to the project coordinator

14 October 2020, 13:42

How can eco-technologies help turn around the problem of eutrophication of the Baltic Sea to circular solutions and new opportunities? The international project BONUS RETURN investigated this in a unique collaboration between SEI, Finnish Environment Institute, Uppsala Universitet, Warsaw University of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen och RISE.

On September 8 the BONUS RETURN final seminar was held in a digital formate. Presentations and interesting conclusions from this day can be relived here:

The Swedish Nutrient Platform has been in contact with the BONUS RETURN coordinator, Karina Barquet at SEI, to get some more in-depth insights on what this project has contributed to.

What was the best part of leading such a large collaborative project for you?

BONUS RETURN was designed as a cross-disciplinary project where the result of one project component – or work package as we call them- would feed into an entirely different part of the project. Each of these parts had its own methodologies, research angles, and cultures. While this cross-disciplinarity certainly had its challenges, as a coordinator it gave me the opportunity to have a bird view of the breath of expertise across so many different fields and understand how the different knots tie unto each other. I learnt a lot from this experience and got to know many great people, many of which are partners in new collaborative constellations born out of BONUS RETURN.

Which of the major obstacles we now see for circulating nutrients, do you think will no longer be an obstacle in say 10 years?

Technology readiness of end-of-pipe solutions is where we see the fastest and clearest development. Solutions for reducing hazardous substances and microplastics in wastewater, and solutions for recovering, processing, and turning nutrients from different end products (e.g., mining, wastewater, agriculture), will probably make it possible to produce marketable reused fertilizers (i.e., that live up to EU standards) within the coming decade. This is positive as it will help us reduce our dependency on foreign and finite resources and at the same time close the loop of total nutrient-input into the Baltic Sea. However, it is good to be aware that end-of-the-pipe solutions are the “low hanging fruit” (not necessarily the most sustainable option) due to at least three reasons.

  1. First, there are examples to follow: the development of end-of-pipe technologies has been accompanied by regulatory changes in several cases in Europe that serve as socio-technical testing beds for countries that are thinking about following a similar path, like Sweden.
  2. Second, there are strong push factors: various private actors see today a business potential in end-of-pipe solutions. These actors are driving technological development, regulatory change, and influencing perceptions in society.
  3. Third, the more sustainable alternative is too difficult: a more diverse array of solutions – including solutions at the source - that better reflect local needs and minimize risks from climate and demographic changes, require more fundamental transitions in governance at all levels, a different approach to spatial planning, and new ways of quantifying and sharing costs and benefits.

Can you highlight 2-3 key project achievements!

I think BONUS RETURN managed to achieve in one or another the aims we had in front of us when the project began in 2017. On behalf of all the partners, I can safely say that we made and are still making important to contributions to:

- policy where we have suggested measures that could improve the management of nutrients and reduce pollution in the Baltic Sea;

- to research through systematically synthetizing evidence, identifying research gaps, mapping out the barriers and opportunities that circular solutions face, and highlighting the local perspective when assessing the sustainability of solutions;

- to innovation where we supported start-ups to come closer to commercialization and connected them to a regional market in the Baltic Sea region;

- and by connecting people and knowledge through supporting existing platforms and actors in the Baltic Sea region and facilitating collaboration.

Was there anything from the project results that surprised you specifically?

I have worked with water and coastal issues in the context of the Baltic Sea for the past 6 years. Before that I worked with governance of water and coasts in a Latin American context. For me, realizing that policy in the Baltic Sea is informed by evidence to the extent it is, and that research actors play an important role in regional governance for example through HELCOM, was a positive surprise.

While governance of the Baltic Sea is not perfect and one could certainly wish for more systemic regulations, the strong connections between research and policy in the region are really not the rule in other parts of the world, where politics and interests play a bigger role in water and coastal governance. This evidence-based governance, coupled with a strong culture of innovation in the Nordic countries, provides a solid foundation to not only solve the huge challenge we have in the region –97% of  Baltic Sea is eutrophic – but also make gains while doing it. In that sense, the Baltic Sea Region is relevant beyond the Baltic Sea.