Netherlands’ waste management has lessons

It took almost 40 years for the Netherlands to reduce its per capita waste from an estimated 500 kilograms per person down to, in some regions, a comparatively small 21 kg.

It also took money and major buy-in from citizens, government, companies and farmers.

The country is not yet done with its plans regarding waste, said Maarten den Ouden. The trade officer with the Consulate General of the Netherlands said that country has set a goal of achieving a “circular economy” by 2050.

The term refers to systems that keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract their maximum value and then recover and regenerate the remaining products or materials into some other use.

Den Ouden shared information about waste reduction efforts in the Netherlands May 30 with various southern Alberta citizens involved in economic development and alternative energy.

“There’s so much more that you can do with this waste,” he said. “We’re trying not to see waste as waste but more of a resource.”

As a country that could geographically fit inside Alberta about 17 times, the Netherlands is small in area but large in agricultural output. It is second only to the United States in the value of its agricultural output.

It also has 17 million people compared to Alberta’s four million.

Multiplying waste times population shows that waste management requires major effort in the small country.

Den Ouden said a major push to reduce waste began in 1979 with Dutch parliamentarian Ad Lansink’s so-called ladder. It describes a hierarchy, in order of preference, for action to be taken with waste starting with the well-known three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle, and moving on to energy, incineration and landfill.

Implementing the plan required major policy shifts, said den Ouden. In 1994-95, the government imposed a ban on putting certain types of waste into landfills and imposed a tax on landfill use.

That tax has since been revoked as per capita waste was reduced and as the tax itself became an administrative burden. However, a per household fee for waste handling still exists in most regions.

In terms of agricultural waste, den Ouden said the country’s approach has resulted in innovative solutions. Composting and biodigesters are common. There are also plans underway to produce automotive body parts from waste agricultural fibre.

He also noted initiatives in which imperfectly shaped vegetables are sold to soup manufacturers, who make product sold in stores. That introduces another human use of product that would otherwise go to animal feed or to compost.

Manure management is another challenge and den Ouden said there is interesting research underway on dehydration and extraction of remaining nutrients for other uses.

“I think at the moment we have a lot of initiatives trying to get the resources, like phosphates and other kinds of products, to get them out of this waste stream. So all the nutrients that are even in the waste, there’s different initiatives for how to get them out, so that’s our next challenge.”

Alberta has several biogas production operations, some of which use manure and other agricultural waste for electrical generation. Den Ouden said there might be a few avenues for use of the product even before that stage.

“Of course you have different streams of waste and you have different markets, and I think that’s also another thing that kind of came about. In the past you only had a value stream for the biogas and electricity was generated, but now there’s also a value stream for the materials before that, reusing these materials as input for other things.”

He noted that in the early stages of Holland’s waste reduction efforts, facilities for electrical generation were overbuilt. At one point the country had to import garbage from other countries to keep its facilities running economically and justify their expense.

“I hope that when they look at that here, they really look for the future and don’t build the overcapacity if they go that direction,” he said.

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