Netherlands Cycling Holiday

Waste disposal and recycling in Assen, Netherlands

We recently (August 2007) moved from Cambridge in the UK to Assen in the Netherlands. One of the things that has been most surprising is the way that waste is dealt with. The Netherlands has the highest rate of recycling in Europe. I understand this is now somewhat over 70%. This compares very well with the UK at 34.5% (UK figure is for 2009).

Rubbish and recycling collections

Back in Cambridge we already sorted our waste into two wheelie bins (black for general rubbish, green for compostable) and two boxes (one for glass, paper and metal, the other for plastics). The bins were collected every other week. While a lot of people in the UK have expressed worries about bi-weekly collections, we found it worked just fine for our family of four. There were no problems of smells, infestations etc. as have been reported as likely by some of the press.

Here in Assen we have three wheelie bins and a chemical waste box for batteries, old medicine, paint thinner etc. There is a black bin for general rubbish (dating from 1980) and a green for compostable (1990). These two being collected on alternate weeks. Also there is a blue bin for paper and cardboard (2006) which is collected monthly. The wheelie bins are collected by a more sophisticated truck than we were used to. This is shown in the video to the left.

Old batteries are also collected by all the supermarkets, at schools and at other locations. There are cylindrical bins for these near the entrances.

The Front Door sticker

I referred to us having a full sized wheelie bin just for papers and cardboard. We were initially surprised by this, but then the junk mail started arriving. Much more of it than we got in the UK. There is a way to stop it. Just add a sticker to your letterbox as shown in the photo. Ours reads "Nee" to unaddressed advertising mail, but "Ja" to house to house delivery of free newspapers. We've not had one piece of advertising junk mail arrive since attaching this to our letterbox.

The local government gives away these stickers. You have a choice of Nee-Ja (as we have) or Nee-Nee which stops the free papers as well.

Glass and Plastic Bottle re-use

It surprised us at first that there was not a collection of glass or plastics. It now makes a lot more sense. Glass and plastic bottles mostly have Statiegeld - a deposit on them ( 10 cents for a 300 ml glass bottle, 25 cents for a PET soft drink bottle ). A machine at the supermarket adds up the value of what you return, gives a refund in the form of a receipt which you present at the supermarket checkout.

It is much better to re-use bottles than just recycle them. Watch the videos on the left to see the machine in action.

You can also return whole crates of beer bottles for re-use and €3.90 deposit is returned when you do this.

Underground containers

Some bottles are not returnable for a deposit to be re-paid. These are marked "glasbak" on the back to tell you to take them to a bottle bank. The bottle banks themselves are quite interesting as they designed to look small while most of the content is underground.

The same system is used for general waste from apartment blocks.

Each bin weighs itself and communicates with the central control when it is nearly full so that it can be emptied. Where these bins are used near blocks of flats each resident has a card which is scanned so that the amount of rubbish discarded by each person can be accounted for and to prevent non-residents from using these bins.

Other vehicles cleaning the streets or tidying up

Any number of other odd rubbish collection / street sweeping / plant trimming vehicles have gone past our door since we moved here. This video shows a tractor pulling a huge "zuigwagen" (literally "suck wagon") vacuum cleaner picking up autumn leaves (it's powered from the PTO on the tractor.

The streets are very clean here ! The sweeping obviously has a lot to do with it, but I also think that there's a very beneficial outcome from having a deposit on bottles as it stops people dropping them.

The recycling centre

Even a visit to the dump (which I've travelled to by Xtracycle with old carpets from our house) is interesting. You have to take along a Milieupas card (Environment pass) and you're weighed on arrival and on leaving. At the weigh-out station you're presented with a receipt so that charges for waste can be calculated. I know we've some allowance on our card, but I don't know how much this is.

The receipt shows that the weight of my delivery bike and myself and the old carpets I was carrying was 145 kg when we arrived and that without the carpet the weight was 105 kg (not all of which is my own bulk !). This added to the total for the year so far which is 185 kg.

"Grof huisafval" refers to rather useless rubbish which is compressed and taken away as landfill. The old carpet came into this category. When we went there with recyclable cardboard packing boxes, the receipt said something different. There are two routes through the recycling centre, one for recyclable materials and one for non-recyclable. You go through different weighing stations for these two options.

Encouraging children to put rubbish in the bin

This rubbish bin is on the side of a bike path near a school. It's designed to encourage children going to the school to put their rubbish in the bin by making doing so enjoyable.

There is more about these on our blog.

It's not only waste...

One of the biggest "green" issues is transport. The Dutch are doing well here by encouraging the population to cycle as much as possible. Nearly 40% of all journeys in Assen are by bike. It's not due to a warm climate (it's been below freezing for 5 days or so as I write this in December) but because the facilities for cycling are so excellent and actually attract people to ride their bikes.

We offer Study Tours for groups interested in modern transport infrastructure.

The photo shows a Dutch mother riding with primary school child through bitterly cold winter weather along a very well constructed bike path next to a canal, which like all the others has been gritted for safe use in winter. The infrastructure is the key to this being commonplace.

LED street lights
Forgive the apostrophe. That's how you write plurals in Dutch.

At the time of writing (April 2008), amongst other activities they are installing LED street lights. Assen will probably be the first place that these are installed right across the city. They offer a considerable saving in energy consumption, while also reducing the amount of light pollution.

Assen is on course to be "Carbon Neutral" by 2020.


Overall there seems to be a very rational way of dealing with waste here. Metal cans are sorted by machine from the general waste. It's easy to see how steel is removed with a magnet. Non magnetic metals are separated by using an eddy current separator. This induces a current in the metal, allowing even non ferrous metals to be separated magnetically.

You might imagine that limiting the amount of waste that households can dump and charging for extra waste disposal would result in a lot of fly-tipping, but it does not do so here. There is far less fly-tipping and littering than we saw in the UK.

There is more information at the Assen Gemeente website.

I work as a basketmasker and also as a cycling guide to the Netherlands. Take a look at a range of baskets which could start their journey to you by bicycle or at our cycling tours.