Public and private sector aren't wasting their time
What are the secret ingredients that make the Dutch system so good when it comes to waste management and recycling? And who are the companies that are leading the way? WMW takes a look...
Baled PET botlles
by Gordon Feller
Thanks to its top-notch waste management structure, the Netherlands is able to recycle no less than 64% of its waste – and most of the remainder is incinerated to generate electricity. As a result, only a small percentage ends up in landfill. In the realm of recycling this is a country which is practically unique.
The Dutch approach is simple: avoid creating waste as much as possible, recover the valuable raw materials from it, generate energy by incinerating residual waste, and only then dump what is left over – but do so in an environmentally friendly way. This approach – known as 'Lansink's Ladder' after the Member of the Dutch Parliament who proposed it – was incorporated into Dutch legislation in 1994 and forms the basis of the 'waste hierarchy' in the European Waste Framework Directive.
A survey carried out for TNT Post revealed that separating waste is the most popular environmental measure among Dutch people. More than 90% of Dutch people separate their household waste. Synovate/Interview NSS interviewed more than 500 consumers about their environmental awareness in the survey for TNT Post. Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth was the second most popular measure (80% of the interviewees) followed by turning the thermostat down 'a degree or two' (75%). Installing carbon filters on cars and purchasing biological products took joint place at the bottom of the list.
Lack of space and a growing environmental awareness forced the Dutch government to take measures early on to reduce the landfilling of waste. This in turn gave companies the confidence to invest in more environmentally friendly solutions. 'We can help countries that are now starting to make these types of investments to avoid the mistakes we made,' says Dick Hoogendoorn, director of the Dutch Waste Management Association (DWMA).
The breakdown of a refrigerator. Credit: Dutch Waste Management Association
The DWMA promotes the interests of some 50 companies that are involved in collecting, recycling, processing, composting, incinerating and landfilling waste. The association's members range from small, regionally-active companies to large companies that operate globally. Hoogendoorn is familiar with both the practical and policy aspects of waste management, having worked both at the Ministry of Health, Spatial Planning and the Environment, and as director of a waste processing company.
The Netherlands has a unique 'waste management structure'. Dutch companies possess the expertise to get the maximum from their waste in a smart and sustainable manner. This forward-thinking process of waste management started in the 1980s when awareness of the need for alternatives to landfill began to grow earlier than in other countries. There was a lack of potential disposal sites and a growing environmental awareness among the public at large.
The numerous objections to waste disposal sites – the smell, soil pollution, groundwater contamination – led the Dutch Parliament to pass a motion introducing a more sustainable approach to waste management.
No one can create an innovative waste processing market by simply raising awareness. What ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in the Netherlands, Hoogendoorn says, were the regulations implemented by the government such as 'Lansink's Ladder'. Over the years, recycling targets were put in place for the various waste streams, such as organic waste, hazardous waste and construction and demolition waste. Introducing a tax on every tonne of material landfilled was key as it gave waste processing companies the incentive to look for other methods – such as incinerating and recycling – simply because they were now much more attractive from a financial point of view.
'The waste market is very artificial,' says Hoogendoorn. 'Without a system of laws and regulations for waste materials the solution would simply be a waste disposal site outside of town to which all waste is taken. Because substantive control measures were established at an earlier stage in the Netherlands there were opportunities for those who did more than just drive their cars to the local dump. Waste processing companies need prospects in order to develop profitable activities, and waste runs like water to the lowest – i.e. the cheapest – point. However, with mandatory and prohibitory provisions and taxes, you can enforce a better grade of waste processing. The market will do its job, providing there is a consistent and credible policy.' Landfilling waste in the Netherlands currently costs approximately €35 per ton, plus an additional €87 in tax if the waste is combustible, which altogether is more expensive than incineration. 'Suddenly incineration is therefore an attractive alternative,' Hoogendoorn says. 'If you don't offer that prospect to the company that incinerates the waste, they'll say, "what, do you think I'm crazy?" But if they see that the government is putting their money where their mouth is, they'll say, "I can build a furnace for that amount." The government sets the parameters, we fill in the details.'
Hoogendoorn knows from his experience in the industry, and hearing it from his members, that Dutch waste processing companies are very often approached to handle the collection and processing of waste across in the world. This shows that government policy is a critical factor. 'Companies won't say "yes" just like that,' he says. 'They need the prospect of making a profit in the longer term, so they will always want to know whether the policymakers are sufficiently aware that the system needs to change, and if they are also prepared to translate that awareness into legislation, regulations and fiscal measures.' Once that framework is in place, Dutch companies can step in.
Recycling in the Netherlands. Credit: Dutch Waste Management Association
However, Hoogendoorn finds it difficult to describe exactly what comprises a company's expertise. 'You have to be able to collect the waste – that's not something that you can do as an add-on task. Because we have been operating our system in the Netherlands for so long, we can help countries starting out.'
'You don't simply go from landfilling to recycling. It's not just something that can be arranged from one day to the next by buying 14 new collection vehicles. By taking measures to increase separation at the source you can ensure that less and less waste goes to waste disposal sites. Then you have to know what you're going to do with the material. If you collect glass, you have to find a glass processing plant. In the Netherlands, we've learned the hard way how important it is to ensure that the entire logistics chain is airtight. We encountered the problem several years ago with plastic: a small number of municipalities collected plastic, but there was no subsequent logistics chain at that time to process what had been collected.'
Foreign governments and public-private partnerships can work with Dutch consultancy firms to set up a sound structure. Companies such as Royal Haskoning, Tebodin, Grontmij and DHV export Dutch knowledge and expertise worldwide. As Hoogendoorn explains: 'They help to create an overall plan that sets out the current situation, as well as how to gradually increase recycling and waste management and phase out open dumps and inadequate collection systems.'
These companies are good at assessing what is realistic and what is not. 'It's all about creating prospects, so you first have to build a number of disposal sites with adequate protection for the environment and public health and gradually you then take measures that help to encourage recycling.'
A Bammens underground container.
Dutch companies still have to go abroad to buy incinerators, but the regulatory framework in the Netherlands has given rise to a manufacturing industry based around techniques such as sorting and composting. Companies such as Gicom en Orgaworld sell composting tunnels and biological dryers worldwide, while Bollegraaf and Bakker Magnetics are leading sorting companies.
As Hoogendoorn quite rightly points out: 'These bold concepts exist because the government assumes part of the risk by granting subsidies.'
Gordon Feller is a freelance writer
Netherlands waste management innovators...
The recycling company VAR is a leader in waste recycling technology. Director Hannet de Vries says the company is growing at a high speed. The latest addition is an organic waste fermentation installation, which generates electricity from vegetable-based waste. The new installation costs €11 million. 'It was a major investment for us,' says De Vries. 'But we want to remain at the forefront of innovation.'
The site used to be nothing more than a dumping ground for the municipality of Voorst. The waste was dumped here and mountains gradually formed. There was a crusher on the site, but nothing else. In 1983 the municipality sold the land, thereby creating one of the first privately owned waste disposal sites. In the years that followed VAR gradually grew from a waste disposal site into a recycling company, encouraged by new legislation that banned the dumping of more and more different kinds of waste. 'There was an encouraging interaction between the Dutch government and the waste processing industry,' says Gert Klein, VAR's Marketing and PR Manager. 'We were able to do more and more and the law was amended accordingly. We continued to develop the company at the same time.' Only the overgrown hills remain as a reminder that there was once a dump site at this location.
VAR is now a full-service recycling company with five divisions: minerals, sorting, biogenic, energy and engineering. This structure is based on the type of activities (sorting), the materials treated (minerals, biogenic) and the end product (energy). Finally, though, it all comes down to one thing, says De Vries. 'We get almost every kind of waste coming in here, including mixed building and demolition waste, biomass, metals and contaminated soil, and practically all of it is resold after processing – as plastic granulate for industry, high-grade compost, clean soil, and energy, to name but a few examples.'
'No matter what the customer brings,' says De Vries, 'we sort it, clean it and process the residual matter into usable new material such as concrete blocks, clean soil, fluff, compost for potted plants: the possibilities are practically endless.'
Combustible methane gas is extracted from the VAR site and foreign delegations – such as a recent group from South Africa – regularly visit VAR. 'They were very interested in gas extraction,' De Vries says. 'A pipe system in the hills ultimately transports the gas to a generator that converts the gas into electricity for the equivalent of 1400 households.' Soon, the still-under-construction organic waste fermentation installation will also generate electricity, but from biomass instead. The tonnes of fine vegetable-based particles will be deprived of oxygen to form methane gas which generators convert into electricity. The installation is unique and will help VAR to achieve its ambition of becoming an energy-neutral company by 2009.
The delegations that visit VAR come mainly for two things, says Gert Klein. 'Visitors from countries with a highly developed recycling system are interested in our modern separating techniques. Delegations from developing countries are most interested in seeing our business model – a place where all sorts of waste comes in – from close-up. They are then interested in a waste disposal site with properly sealed covers above and below, and a sound system for extracting the methane gas. That is the foundation, and you go on from there.'
A user swipes a pass to access an underground container (pictured below)
In the Netherlands, it is now impossible to imagine places without underground refuse containers, especially in the centre of cities where many above-ground containers have been replaced by thin pillar boxes into which environmentally conscious citizens can put paper, glass, plastic containers and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles.
Bammens has produced underground containers since 1995. 'As well as being more aesthetically pleasing, underground refuse containers are also more hygienic because rodents can't get into them,' says Rens Dekkers, who works in marketing and communications. The system is efficient because each container can hold up to 5m3 of waste, which means that they can be emptied less frequently.
The newest generation are equipped with electronic devices. 'The user is then given access to the system by means of a pass and can be taxed depending on how often he puts waste in the container,' Dekkers says. Bammens exports the underground systems on request as an easy-to-assemble kit to practically every country in the European Union.
Anyone who purchases a DVD recorder or wide-screen TV also receives a sizeable amount of Styrofoam, which is necessary to protect the equipment. Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene or EPS), with its large amount of trapped air, also has good insulating properties, which is why it is used in construction. In the Netherlands 11,500 tons (10,432 tonnes) of EPS becomes available for further use every year. Waste processor Sita collects EPS from the construction industry, as well as from the electronics, white goods and brown goods sectors. 'We break it down into smaller pieces and mix it together with new Styrofoam, which makes it 100% recyclable without any loss of quality,' says Vincent Mooij from Sita. One particular new use involves compacting second-hand EPS and processing it into 'Geo-Blocks'. 'Those are plates in sizes up to five metres by one metre that are used as foundations for roads instead of sand,' says Mooij. This process is good for both the environment and mobility. Geo-Block plates are used in other countries, but the Netherlands is the only country where old Styrofoam is used as a raw material.
Nihot produces waste sorting machines that can separate waste particles with an extremely high degree of accuracy of between 95% and 98%. Every type of substance, from glass and pieces of debris to ceramics, has its own density and the controlled air currents used to separate them cause each particle to end up with other particles of the same type. Nihot builds large, stationary units, as well as smaller, portable units such as the brand-new SDS 500 and 650 single-drum separators. The convenience of these units makes them ideal for work on site, such as during the demolition of an apartment building, because the debris can be sorted on site rather than being transported to processing installations.
Governments, from national to local, set requirements for the condition of public spaces on everything from waste and sewer water to ice on roads. The Dutch company Vista-Online offers tools that make it much easier and quicker to check compliance with these requirements. Inspectors are given a smart phone to report the condition of the site in real time. The data is sent to a server and will then appear quickly on a Vista-Online website to which the customer is given a special access code. The data is then immediately available and clearly organized, and the time-consuming collating of the inspection findings is no longer necessary. What's more, online inspection avoids the expense and time required to set up an ICT system. Vista-Online works for local and national authorities in the Netherlands and abroad, including Manchester Airport Authority in the UK.
Pre-sorting waste sounds like a great idea, but the amount of additional transportation can be substantial. Rising fuel costs and congested roads emphasize the disadvantages of that system. Bollegraaf therefore introduced a solution in the US, and recently in Europe as well: single-stream sorting. All dry waste – paper, glass, tins, plastics and tetra pack – can be put into Bollegraaf's single-stream sorting facility together. More than 95% of the waste is then automatically separated using a combination of different technologies. Bringing together these existing technologies in one facility is what makes the single-stream sorting unit special. The unit has a capacity of 40 tons (36.3 tonnes) an hour. When asked how Bollegraaf came up with the idea, director and owner Heiman Bollegraaf says: 'We reacted to a need in the market. Since then, we have supplied some 50 single-stream sorting units in the US, and we recently made our European debut, in England. We have also signed contracts with customers in France and Australia.'
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