Trash Planet: The Netherlands

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The Trash Planet series highlights various countries around the world and how they handle their waste.

The Netherlands’ waste management system is highly regarded around the world. However, the country sticks to a simple plan: avoid waste as much as possible, recover valuable raw materials from waste, generate green energy from waste when possible and only discard the waste that is left over.

This isn’t necessarily an original waste management plan, but the way the country goes about their plan is original – and it’s working. Second only to Germany, the Netherlands leads the world in recycling, with 65 percent of all waste recycled.

Photo: Greenwichmeantime.com

In 2004, the Netherlands became the first country to require producers and importers to be responsible for the collection and disposal of used goods. More than 60 million tons of waste is produced in the Netherlands each year. The largest waste streams are construction and demolition waste and industrial waste. Photo: Greenwichmeantime.com

But how did the Netherlands get here? To answer this question, we need to take a look back – about 30 years back.

In the 1980s, residents in the Netherlands were concerned about the future of their country. The Netherlands, one of the most densely populated and highly industrialized countries in the world, was becoming increasingly crowded. The production and consumption of consumer goods was rising, and with that, waste levels were increasing while landfill space was diminishing.

In effort to control growing amounts of trash, the country scrambled. Incineration and overused landfills were increasing toxic levels in soil, water and air. Pollution and lack of landfill space became major causes of concern to the Netherlands’ quality of life.

So, with a growing sense of urgency, the Netherlands got down to business.

Now known as the Social Response, the country unified its people, business sector and government to reduce environmental pressures and improve the quality of its surroundings. The country began drafting legislation and regulations, setting goals and standards and implementing and enforcing laws, rules and goals.

Elements of the Netherlands National Waste Policy

The Netherlands’ current waste management policy largely focuses on tackling problems at their onset by preventing the production of waste. When waste production cannot be avoided, waste materials are recycled, and non-recyclable waste is disposed via environmentally acceptable means. The main elements of the policy are:

The Netherlands has the highest percentage of household waste recycling in Europe and the lowest level of land filling. Photo: Ggpht.com

The Netherlands has the highest percentage of household waste recycling in Europe and the lowest level of land filling. Photo: Ggpht.com

  • Waste Disposal Hierarchy, (aka Landlink’s Ladder)
  • Waste Treatment Standards
  • National Waste Disposal Planning
  • Producer Responsibility
  • Prevention and Recycling Regulations

Waste Disposal Hierarchy

The main ideas in the Netherlands’ waste policies are represented in a hierarchy model, commonly referred to by the Dutch as Landlink’s Ladder. Named after a member of Dutch parliament who designed it, Landlink’s Ladder applies levels of importance to five core waste management components:

  • Prevention
  • Product Reuse
  • Waste Recovery
  • Incineration
  • Landfill

The model serves as a guide for waste management techniques and places prevention at the top of the hierarchy, as most the desirable means.  The idea behind prevention is simple: Avoid waste production as much as possible. The second and third components on the hierarchy are product reuse and recovery. These components include packaging and material reuse and the use of waste as fuel.

Fourth on the hierarchy is incineration. All Dutch waste incineration plants produce energy for electricity generation, heating or industrial steam generation. Last, and most avoided on the hierarchy, is the landfill. Waste in the Netherlands is only sent to the landfill after all other options on Landlink’s Ladder have been exhausted.

Because of prevention-of-waste programs, the volume of waste has been growing more slowly than the Netherlands’ Gross Domestic Product since 1995. The main sources of sustainable energy for domestic consumption – which account for 75% of the total amount – are the co-combustion of biomass in power stations, wind energy and energy from waste incineration plants. Photo: Neweuropeanpoets.blogspot.com

The Netherlands’ main sources of sustainable energy for domestic consumption – which account for 75 percent of the total amount – are the co-combustion of biomass in power stations, wind energy and energy from waste incineration plants. Photo: Neweuropeanpoets.blogspot.com

Stringent Waste Treatment Standards

The Netherlands practices stringent standards for waste disposal, and landfills are regulated by checking soil and groundwater for pollution. Incinerators are regulated for air emissions, plant construction and the incineration process itself.

Bans on 35 waste-streams from landfills help keep contamination levels low. Any waste-streams that can be recovered or incinerated, such as household waste, organic waste, plastic waste and demolition waste, are not allowed in landfills.

Certain environmental standards are also set to guarantee quality of secondary raw materials made from waste used for building materials, fuel and fertilizer.

Planning on the National Level

The Netherlands’ Waste Consultation Council was established in 1990 to help govern waste management policies on a national level.

The council, comprising of the national government, provinces and municipalities, set up various programs and directives with a goal of making the Netherlands one of the most sustainable countries in Europe by 2020 and entirely sustainable by 2050.

Recycling requirements were put in place for the various waste streams, taxes were imposed for disposed waste and incentives were created to encourage alternative methods for waste management.

The highly involved Dutch parliament works alongside industry and organizations to reach environmental targets and reached an agreement with the industrial and the energy sector on emission rights trading. The current policy works to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels.

Producer Responsibility

Producer responsibility comes down to giving producers and importers the responsibility of finding sustainable methods not only for the manufacturing of goods, but also for the packaging of those goods.

Sometimes referred to as the “polluter pays principle”, producers take on the physical and financial burden for managing their products in a way that will reduce environmental pressures. Often, these burdens are included in the cost of products.

The Netherlands is fourth in the list of European countries with the most patent applications relating to solar energy. The Dutch government aims to generate 6,000 MW from offshore wind energy by 2020. Photo: Nationalgeographic.com

The Netherlands is fourth on the list of European countries with the most patent applications relating to solar energy. The Dutch government aims to generate 6,000 MW from offshore wind energy by 2020. Photo: Nationalgeographic.com

Depending on the product, producer and importer responsibility is voluntary, regulated or a combination of the two. The following products must have a collection and recycling system in place once they reach the end-of-life stage:

  • Plastic construction materials
  • Electric and electronic equipment
  • End-of-life vehicles
  • Tires
  • Batteries
  • Packaging

Various Instruments

The Netherlands offers innovative and convenient trash-collecting systems, as well as imposing financial instruments such as a landfill tax and volume-based-waste fee systems as incentives.

Household waste is collected separately, based on of a variety of waste streams like organic waste, paper and cardboard and small chemical waste. Along with providing household waste collection, every municipality is required to establish waste drop-off locations.

Some municipalities offer volume-based-waste fee systems, or variable-waste charging. This means that households don’t pay a fixed fee. Instead, they pay for the amount of waste collected at the household. In 2006, households in the Netherlands paid an average of 240 Euros for waste fees, about $340 U.S. dollars.

But many Dutch cities manage their waste with pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) systems. Residents of the city of Maastricht buy plastic garbage bags based on how much waste they expect to generate. The larger the amount of waste, the larger the bag, and the larger the bags cost more money. The system seems to worL: Since the introduction of the program, the city’s recycling rate has increased from 45 percent to 65 percent.

Future Plans

So what’s in the cards for the Netherlands? Recently established objectives for 2012 are to increase the level of waste recovery to 83 percent and to limit the amount of waste for disposal to 9.5 billion kilograms.

The Netherlands’ successful waste-management system is one of the most studied in the world. The country’s ambitious requirements  for waste streams, innovative collection programs and incentives for citizens and producers have worked effectively, making the country one of the greenest in the world.

Feature image courtesy of Alias 0591