Plastic, plastic everywhere — and how two cities in The Netherlands are zeroing in on recyclable waste. Picture: 123RTFMONTICELLO
Plastic, plastic everywhere — and how two cities in The Netherlands are zeroing in on recyclable waste. Picture: 123RTFMONTICELLO

Amsterdam — When Magdalena was clearing out her home in Amsterdam, she took her old clothes and other household waste to a recycling hub, knowing it would be worth her while.

The Zero Waste Lab in the east of the Dutch city gave her discount tokens for local shops and market stalls in exchange for two bags of fabric, paper and plastic. “It’s great. You are rewarded for saving the planet,” said Magdalena, who did not want to give her full name.

Zero Waste Lab is one of several new initiatives in Dutch cities aiming to highlight the scourge of urban waste by turning trash into something useful or artistic. Magdalena's jeans were sent to Firma Koos, a local social enterprise that hires people struggling to find work and recycles denim to make cushions and bags.

Her electronic cables, fabric and plastic bottles were destined for children's arts and crafts workshops. “We need to reward people, and we need the rewards to come back into the local community,” lab manager Bonnie Joosten told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since it started in 2016, 30 local businesses and 1,100 households have joined the project. Tom Leeflang, who owns a pancake stall nearby, says the scheme works well because it is not compulsory. “If it’s voluntary, people are much more likely to participate.” 

Circular urban economics

The Netherlands' two largest cities have both pledged to become circular economies, re-using waste as new materials to extract maximum value — Amsterdam by 2050 and Rotterdam by 2030.  The first step is to improve the cities' recycling rates, which are far lower than in the rest of the country.

The average person in the Netherlands produces 550kg of waste each year, according to Zero Waste Lab. Just more than half is recycled. In Amsterdam, where most residents live in apartments with no outdoor space, only 27% of waste is recycled, Joosten said. The municipality hopes to boost that to 65% by 2020.

Besides helping raise recycling rates, Joosten and her team at Zero Waste Lab hope to improve social cohesion in the area. The goal is for the lab to serve as a “community living room” where people can get to know their neighbours and find out about local projects. “We don’t only create value for waste, we also create value for people,” says Joosten.

The lab sends some of the waste it collects to libraries that recently started running workshops for children called “maker spaces”. The creative sessions aim to show "you can create something beautiful from rubbish”, says project manager Rob van der Burg. The children are taught how to make bags and clothing from old textiles, and to build robots using electronic waste.

"We want to give them the tools they need in the 21st century, to consciously re-use the materials they have, and to invent creative solutions for environmental issues,” van der Burg says.

Every year, 80,000kg to 100,000kg of plastic waste dumped in the Nieuwe Maas floats out to the North Sea

Plastic park

In Rotterdam, a floating park opened this summer, built entirely from plastic waste found in the Nieuwe Maas River. "Recycled Park" is a green oasis teeming with small water birds, fish and algae. It is made up of more than a dozen hexagonal pods, where people can sit and watch ships on their way to the port.

Frustrated by the “plastic soup” floating in the river, architect Ramon Knoester started organising clean-ups two years ago. Since then, volunteers have used large litter traps to retrieve about 10,000kg of plastic from the water.

Knoester did not realise the scale of the problem until he saw the contents of the traps, which included large containers, construction helmets and many footballs. Every year, 80,000kg to 100,000kg of plastic waste dumped in the Nieuwe Maas floats out to the North Sea, he says.

The architect convinced Rotterdam municipality to use the waste to make a floating park in its centre, as his vision fitted with the city's ambition to become a circular economy.

“Waste is worth gold, we say in Rotterdam," said a spokesperson for the municipality. "As a city we are working together to move from 'trash towards beauty'. We are aiming to turn the city centre and port into a circular hotspot."

With €200,000 from the municipality and investors, Knoester launched the park in June. He says the public reaction had been positive and he plans to expand the 140m² park, as well as create an educational programme to teach younger people to “think about products we can make from this waste material”.

Knoester hopes his work with the park will inspire others to incorporate waste products into buildings and public facilities. “If we treat and collect our waste well, then we can make beautiful projects like this.” 

Thomson Reuters Foundation