The leaking Ladder of Lansink [ongoing article]

Recycling is the new mantra of the 21st century. Yet efforts to phase out old-fashioned dumping and discourage incineration of waste have not led to universal improvements in recycling rates in the Netherlands. Bringing waste export to a halt might be the key.

Domestic waste is the biggest single component of all waste generated in most countries, representing around half of the total pie. It includes everything from kitchen refuse and old books to newspapers and broken flower pots. Mundane as they are, their composition inconsistency makes them a challenge to recycle and process. It is therefore not surprising that for the most part of modern history, they have been simply chucked in dumping sites.

Domestic waste provides fertile feed for seagulls at landfills and waste transfer stations.
Domestic waste provides fertile feed for seagulls at landfills and waste transfer stations. Image credit Tesco.

In the 1940s, the word ‘landfill’ first came into use in the United States to describe the dumping sites of yore. Around the same time environmental scientists began to properly recognize the link between landfills and cases of groundwater poisoning and contamination of arable land.

As a result, many things came to fall under the scope of new legislations, from the integrity of landfills’ bottom linings and drainage constructions to even the continued environmental monitoring of landfills decades after decommissioning. Furthermore, landfill taxes were introduced and certain waste streams were outlawed for landfill disposal.

This heralded the decline of ‘composition-blind’ disposal in the waste industry. ‘Garbage’- as it was once generically and dismissingly called – became increasingly recognized as a mixture of identifiable elements that have distinct potentials for reuse.

That was a paradigm change for the industry, as it signaled a shift in focus from logistics to material science. Landfill dumping was made unaffordable by artificially levied taxes and regulations (upwards of € 110 per ton including taxes in the Netherlands), while material specific processing methods became increasingly financially viable.

Ladder van Lansink
Ladder of Lansink: Prevention, Reuse, Recycling, Energy Generation, Incineration, Landfill Disposal

In the Netherlands, this formed the basis for the introduction of the first Dutch National Waste Management plan (Landelijk Afvalbeheer Plan, or just LAP, in Dutch) in 1993. Waste prevention and recycling are encouraged, while incineration and disposal in landfills not. The Ladder van Lansink, a representation of this hierarchy of desirability, came to become synonymous with the LAP. This paved the groundwork for an entire ecosystem of waste processing companies to flourish across the country, specializing on recycling everything from common recyclables like plastic, glass and paper, to more exotic waste streams like mattresses, roof felt and isolation materials.

In 2003, the Dutch government took a further step to enforce the Ladder van Lansink when they announced a total ban on disposal of unsorted domestic waste in landfills. Simultaneously, they demanded the gradual decommissioning of all landfills, except for a handful reserved for waste streams with no possibility of material retrieval. In doing so, they hoped to sound the death knell for composition-blind domestic waste disposal, thereby solidifying the position of pre-sorted waste collection as the most legally and economically feasible waste management strategy.

The percentage of sorted waste collection improved as predicted in the following years. Fast forward to 2014, the Netherlands has achieved one of the highest rates of sorted domestic waste collection in the world, with 51% of domestic waste collected through sorted waste collection methods.

The Dutch government’s tough policies seem to have been vindicated.

Improvement 2003-2012
Images showing the performance of sorted waste collection at a municipality (gemeente) level in terms of percentage of waste collected through sorted recycling containers. The performances range from dark brown (below 50%) to deep emerald (above 64%).

However, the success seems to be inconsistent across the country. Several distinctive collections of cities seemed to fail to progress; some even regressed. This is especially obvious in the Randstad, the cities across the middle of the country and the collection around Groningen.

This begs for an explanation.


Incinerator locations
Overlay of waste incinerator locations on sorting performance of Dutch municipalities anno 2012.

Incinerators are the most obvious suspect for this trend. The fact that waste incineration nowadays often costs close to €100 per ton does not take away the fact that it is still a supremely convenient and attractive waste disposal method, compare to alternatives such as mechanical sorting of waste. Furthermore, the presence of several incinerators close to each other could drive incineration prices down, further increasing its feasibility.

This phenomenon can be seen to a certain extent in the Randstad. Empirical evidence shows this to be true too; many incineration ovens in the Netherlands are   at the moment, and some even have to depend on imported waste from Italy, England and Ireland to remain viable.

However, outside of the Randstad, proximity to waste incineration plants do not seem to have a strong correlation with the areas with a low rate of sorted waste collection.

It is therefore necessary to seek a better explanation.


A second possible explanation is the illegal disposal of household waste in landfills.

Overlay of locations of landfills open for residual waste, on sorting performance of Dutch municipalities anno 2012.
Overlay of locations of landfills open for residual waste, on sorting performance of Dutch municipalities anno 2012.

Technically, disposal of unsorted domestic waste in landfills has been outlawed in the Netherlands since 2003. But there are numerous ways to sidestep this law, such as mixing domestic waste with landfill-approved waste streams such as asbestos-containing demolition waste.

Landfills corporations keen to make a quick buck could also relax their acceptance criteria to increase their revenue. Should this be possible, waste collection companies would have a quick and dirty way to get rid of troublesome domestic waste, just like mankind has done for centuries.

But once again, a look at the locations of the landfills does not reveal the correlation that we seek. Therefore, there is once again no strong reason to believe that illegal landfill disposal of domestic waste is happening on a large scale.

At this point, there remains just one plausible explanation left: export of waste products by sea or rail.

Export of waste

It was once customary in the 1980s and 90s to export large amounts of domestic waste to Germany by train, where they would end up in deserted German coalmines and cheap landfills. However, waste export has since retreated into a relatively regulated and polite affair, with Dutch waste regulations based on the Basel Convention and OECD regulations coming into force. Only material streams for useful applications such as glass, paper and scrap metal are allowed for export without the need for approval from the relevant authorities of both the disposing and receiving countries. Besides that, the export of (unsorted) domestic waste for disposal in overseas landfills – including those in Germany – became entirely outlawed since 2005.

Yet, areas in the Netherlands with high access to freight rail and seaports have a curiously high correlation with lower domestic waste sorting rates, namely the central band of the Netherlands, where the major Germany bound cargo trains travel through, and the areas around the ports of Groningen, Zeeland, Zwolle, Friesland and the Randstad. Could illegal export of unsorted domestic waste be the reason holding back the progress in these districts?

Rail and seaports
Freight capable rail lines (yellow lines) and seaports (blue spots) in the Netherlands. Sorting percentages based on data from 2012.

Bypassing the vague rules surrounding waste export is not difficult: faking of export documents and mixing of domestic waste with useful materials happen on a regular basis through middle men dealing in waste transport.

In fact, waste export is a very real thing. It was estimated that 16% of all waste related shipments passing through the port of Rotterdam in 2009 were illegal, with actual numbers probably higher. For example, shipments of domestic waste could be covered with a layer of shredded recyclable paper and passed off as recyclables. Similarly, household electronic waste could be reported as second-hand electronics.

Illegal shipments were especially rampant in the year after the landfill disposal ban was introduced in 2003, as the waste industry was caught off-guard by the sudden lack of alternatives to landfills, and proceeded to export waste in huge amounts to Germany. This eventually led to a similar ban on export of domestic waste to German landfills in 2005. Yet, as with all laws in the waste industry, the possibility that (components of) domestic waste still getting exported by fraudulent registration under another waste type, or mixed up with other wastes permitted for export, remains very real.

Then there are the legal ways, such as modifying domestic waste so that they can be considered for useful applications. The Netherlands (as well as several other European countries), exports so-called ‘energy pellets’ – basically granules made from compressing combustible residual components of domestic waste – to Denmark and Germany for energy generation. While this is a very clever and positive idea, the fact that residual domestic waste components can be used to legally turn a profit, acts against efforts to further sorted waste collection.

It can therefore more or less be said that waste export in any form, whether legal or illegal, has a detrimental effect on efforts to further sorted waste collection. What’s more, there is strong reason to believe that this is the main reason behind hindered improvements in recycling rates in many municipalities in the Netherlands.

Notable exceptions

Samenwerkingsverband Regio Eindhoven
Member municipalities of the Samenwerkingsverband Regio Eindhoven in pink.

There is a region in the Netherlands which seems to have defied this trend: the Southern region of Brabant. Despite having a few Germany-bound cargo tracks running through its territory, the region still boasts the highest sorting percentage of domestic waste in the Netherlands. This seems to be a counterexample of the abovementioned association. However, this deviation could perhaps be attributed to another reason: governmental intervention.

One example of this is the Samenwerkingsverband Regio Eindhoven, or SRE in short. It is basically a consortium of municipalities (Dutch: Stadregio) that have made admirable moves to coordinate their efforts in waste management, aiming to reduce unrecyclable residual waste to just 5% of their domestic waste production by 2020. In fact, they were so successful that the waste management corporation Attero ironically sued the SRE for not delivering the amount of domestic waste for incineration as contractually agreed.

To be continued…

The conclusions in this article are still being further researched to improve their rigorousness. However, there is at this moment already a strong reason to believe that export of waste or waste related materials play a strong role in hindering the progress in recycling rates in municipalities in the Netherlands.

The data on waste of the Dutch municipalities and geographical information of the Netherlands used in this article are public and were retrieved from the websites of GitHub, Rijkswaterstaat Leefomgeving,, and AfvalOnline. Visualisations were made in QGIS. Cover image from IAPH World Ports.

Tight opinions and fluffy poop.

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