Over the last two years, I have been separating my waste: one box for plastics, one for glass, one for paper and cardboards, and one for everything else. After sorting it at home, I bring it to the underground waste containers at Javaplein in Amsterdam-Oost, where there is a separate container for each material. Quite honestly, I do this without any questioning because as a conscious and sustainable citizen I separate my waste, right?
I never thought of what happens with the waste I separate, and whether it is necessary I do this. Until I recently worked on a programme for Pakhuis de Zwijger with filmmaker and writer Bahram Sadeghi, who collected his own plastic waste for 1,000 days. Seeing his ‘waste collection’ made me think about the waste I produce and where it goes after leaving my house. Now it’s time to find out!
Currently, around 27 percent of our waste in Amsterdam is separated, with the aim to reuse it in new products. Most of our waste still ends up together as rest waste. In short, we can do better as citizens of Amsterdam. With almost a quarter of our waste separated today, Amsterdam scores lower than Utrecht and The Hague, and its position is comparable with Rotterdam. In 2015, the Municipality set a goal of reaching a 65 percent waste separation rate in Amsterdam by 2020. To reach the additional 38 percent in four years, households and businesses need to separate more waste. However, the Municipality has already ascertained, just a year after setting its goal, that separating at the source will not be sufficient to actually accomplish this 65 percent mission.
Looking at my own waste production, I am first of all unpleasantly surprised by the weekly amount of it. Also, I wonder what actually happens to all my separated glass, paper, plastic, and rest waste. I chose to follow the tracks of the latter two, starting with the group that probably appeals most to the imagination: plastics. On average, a household in the Netherlands consumes around 50 to 60 kilogram of plastic packing materials a year. Most municipalities in the Netherlands collaborate with collective system Plastic Heroes to collect and recycle plastic packaging materials. Plastic Heroes is initiated by the Dutch packaging industry. The participating municipalities receive a compensation by Plastic Heroes to collect the plastics. Per municipality, it differs if you use special refuse bags or the orange Plastic Heroes containers to collect your plastics. In Amsterdam, we have around 160 of those containers. After collection by the Municipality, the plastic is checked for quality, sorted, and pressed into large bales. These bales are offered to recycling companies, who turn it into (sauce) bottles, crates, and toys (like the plastic yellow ducks).
However, thinking about solutions to produce alternatives for plastic packaging (or non-packaging) instead of solutions for recycling our existing stack is what should be a responsibility to all, especially the industry. We all read about the plastic soup that is dispersed in our oceans. And it is not solely our plastic bags and packaging that ends up in the water. Worse still, the cause of the problem is mostly due to the microplastics you can’t see with your bare eyes. Microplastics are omnipresent; from your clothes to your washing dispenser, in your cosmetics and even in your toothpaste. This was actually one of Bahram’s conclusions.
‘Plastics. Are. Everywhere.’ – Bahram Sadegh, filmmaker
And the smaller, the more dangerous to our health and planet: you can’t filter them all out.
The largest part of my waste is rest waste, which mostly consists of food leftovers, vegetables, and fruits. In Amsterdam, organic waste is the largest part of the rest waste. Surprisingly enough, there is not a separate collection scheme for this yet. Though, the municipality and the Amsterdam Waste-to-Energy company (AEB) are experimenting with different possibilities. One of the small municipal experiments takes places in the Eastern Harbour District on Cruquiuseiland. Six families in the neighbourhood bring their fruit and vegetable waste to a special underground container; an urban compost heap where 4,000 worms reside. These worms turn the waste into compost that the families can use in their gardens. If the pilot succeeds, more of these containers will be placed in Amsterdam over the next years and we can start separating our fruits and vegetables as well.
At the moment, my own rest waste goes directly to the AEB. Here, it’s burned and combusted into energy; district heating. Around 20,000 Amsterdam households depend on the heat produced by the AEB. This means that AEB needs a steady supply of resources to burn. At the same time, households in Amsterdam have been separating their waste in increasing quantities, and because of the economic crisis, Amsterdam businesses produced less waste. AEB is having a hard time receiving enough rest waste from the Amsterdam region to meet the heat demands.
Alderperson Abdeluheb Choho (Sustainability) wants to complement the waste policy of Amsterdam by using additional machinery to separate our rest waste. This machine will be built at the AEB and should be up and running in the fall of 2017. The machine can separate different types of waste after collection and can process 300,000 tons of waste per year. With the machine, AEB is heading in the direction of becoming a resource factory rather than a combustion company. The machine is expected to add another 9 percent to our amount of separated waste, bringing the total to 36 percent. If Amsterdam would also invest in extra underground containers in our streets, it would bring the total up to 49 percent.
We are not quite there yet, but Amsterdam’s waste seems to have great potential in making our future city become more self-sufficient – if we can find the right ways to reduce, sort and reuse. We just need to reset our mindset. How can we reinvent the system and give ‘waste’ a new meaning? What if we think of waste more as a potential resource than as something we solely throw away as (separated) garbage? Maybe I should just start my own Plastic Plant Factory to kick things off.
Watch the video below to see how plastic defines your lifestyle.