Amsterdam has a garbage problem. There is a lot of it, and a considerable amount is visible on the streets: as litter, or overflowing bins, or spread around containers in the form of household waste and discarded furniture. Being a big, densely populated city with a large student population, as well as tourists and day trippers, the waste disposal system is bound to be complicated, to say the least. But problems have been structural and consistent for years. As issues mount up along with residents’ complaints, the municipality is taking measures to address the messy situation on multiple fronts.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Amsterdam’s yearly amount of household waste is 246.1 kilos per inhabitant, plus 56.4 kilos of bulky waste. That is ten times more the amount of waste produced in other parts of the country, such as North Limburg, where the waste system, from production to disposal and recycling, is considered extremely efficient.
Furthermore, due to a low amount of waste separation, 66% of household waste in Amsterdam ends up incinerated, which translates into more pollution and higher costs for waste disposal. Therefore, Amsterdam residents pay 459 euros in tax to the municipal waste service, much more than in other parts of the country. Newspaper Het Parool reported in July that, out of 312.000 tons of household waste produced in Amsterdam in 2022, 228.000 was undifferentiated waste, while 19.000 was paper and cardboard, 17.000 glass; 3.000 textiles; and 865 GFT (organic waste).
So there is indeed a lot of trash, and little of it gets separated at the source. This is not a new problem. For many years, Amsterdam has dealt with waste and litter issues, and various experiments to improve them have turned out to be unsuccessful. Structural problems in the system have worsened the situation: in 2021, AEB, the service responsible for waste collection, owned by the municipality, was placed under stricter supervision due to the high amount of litter on the streets and overflowing containers. In 2019, AEB, was on the brink of bankruptcy and had to be rescued and restructured. All these problems combined have resulted in more complaints from residents, mostly about littered streetscapes and broken or full garbage containers surrounded with trash. In 2021 there were 400.000 complaints, compared to 250.000 in 2019.
Back to summer 2023, and new problems have arisen. Besides the increased amount of litter due to people spending more time outside after Covid – a situation that alderwoman Zita Pels for Cleaning, Waste and Sustainability called a “deposits problem” in a letter to the municipality – new problems were added to the pile, NOS reported. As a new deposit of 15 cents was introduced for small bottles this year (and for cans last year), some people have started to hunt waste bins in order to make some money out of items with a deposit, which has resulted in damaged bins and scattered trash in the streets.
So the municipality has started to address the problem. A guerilla action that began in the city centre that attached “donation rings” to the bins: metal racks in which cans and bottles can be placed and then collected by people looking to cash in the deposit. The municipality has now adopted this idea and installed these rings with promising results. Now, the project is growing beyond the city centre to other parts of the city. This way, fewer bins are being destroyed and less litter ends up in the streets.
The municipality is deploying extra staff to inspect damaged bins and repair them, and new locks will be installed so they are much more difficult to destroy. Moreover, new bins will be added to the city this summer and “activation teams” will be deployed in parks to remind people to place their garbage correctly where it corresponds. Measures also include a media campaign with banners and billboards to create awareness and encourage visitors to clean up their own waste, as well as to prevent students and residents from dumping furniture on the sidewalks and instead use the regular pickup service destined for that purpose.
From 2024, 10.000 mini containers, and 500 to 800 larger ones for taller buildings, will be added in Amsterdam so residents can separate organic waste once more. If this new attempt is successful, the waste management process will be more cost-effective, and compost for farming will be produced, as well as more raw materials that can be used for various purposes.
Written by Juan Álvarez Umbarila