Why Amsterdam Is So Clean

The reason for Amsterdam’s nearly perfect environment was not too clear, but my curiosity heightened as one coming from a country where waste management has been and still remains a huge challenge.

Like many other European cities, Amsterdam is extremely clean. No foul smell from choked gutters, no heaps of rubbish by the roadside and certainly no burning of garbage to pollute the air.

Answers to my prying questions revealed that The Netherlands has one of the finest waste management regimes in the world but, surprisingly, it was not just about that; It is also about the willingness of residents to pay the price for waste management services.

Waste management financing

In The Netherlands, there are seven different taxes residents pay, and one of them is waste collection levy. The €250 annual levy, according to Mr Herts (a resident), is used to finance the sewage system and solid waste management activities as it provided ready financing for the collection, processing and disposal of household rubbish.

Accra's waste management dilemma

"Without adequate financing, cities can't improve services, but until they see improvements, citizens will not pay for them." This is the position of results-based financing approaches, a new report by the World Bank and the Global Partnership of Output-Based Aid (GPOBA), which precisely reveals what Accra's waste management challenges are.

Waste management companies are struggling to break even but residents will not also pay realistic rates until services improve, a kind of chicken and egg situation begging for a solution for improved waste management services.

The President of the Environmental Service Providers Association (ESPA), Dr Joseph Siaw Agyapong, said the establishment of a National Sanitation Fund was overdue.

According to him, players in many countries such as Germany and Brazil have survived because their government's supported their operations with money from their funds.

He explained that through such environmental fund, governments in those countries were able to buy and lease sanitation equipment to contractors for between eight to nine years.

"We have heard about the Green Fund and the Plastic Fund but accessing the money is difficult. Waste management business is a commercial cash flow and not viable to many banks, therefore, accessing loans is difficult, and in cases where banks are willing, you receive the loan at commercial rates of 30-32 per cent," he stated.

"Some residents in low income areas are not willing to pay. In the current situation, contractors move from house to house to collect their own money.  The ‘I will pay, I will not pay’ rhetoric from residents makes the work even more difficult," Dr Agyapong said.

"Contractors are struggling and are unable to even change their tired trucks", he added.

 National Sanitation Fund

In December 2010, a major conference to discuss waste management financing organised by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) proposed, among others, a National Sanitation Fund, which participants believed would help cushion solid waste contractors, and consequently improve the environmental sanitation situation.

Five years on, not much has been done about the National Sanitation Fund, but Dr Agyapong said such a fund was needed to help address the many financial challenges that many of the Environmental Service Providers Association (ESPA) faced.

The Netherland's other secret

Beyond the measures put in place to ensure that waste management is self-financing in The Netherlands is the role of recycling. Plastic, glass and scrap metal are all collected separately and reused and organic waste used for composting.

Waste management in the European country has travelled the mile but the approach, according to the Dutch Waste Management Association (DWMA), has been simple: avoid creating waste as much as possible, recover the valuable raw materials from it, generate energy by incinerating residual waste and only then dump what is left over – but do so in an environmentally friendly way.

This approach – known as 'Lansink's Ladder' after the Member of the Dutch Parliament who proposed it – was incorporated into Dutch legislation in 1994 and forms the basis of the 'waste hierarchy' in the European Waste Framework Directive.

Some cities turn trash directly into energy, avoiding the need for landfills.

Statistics from the DWMA website indicate that 99 per cent of domestic and industrial waste is converted into energy to power the city’s trams, underground trains and streetlights, as well as 75 per cent of city households.

The heat generated during the incineration process provides 12,000 homes with heating and hot water.

Waste is money

Materials that fail to burn during incineration are used too.

The city’s waste and energy company, AEB, extracts metals such as iron, copper and aluminium and sends them to specialised recycling facilities, and turns what remains into a construction material for use in roads.

All these generate revenue for the city – the 1m megawatt hours of electricity AEB creates from 1.3m tonnes of waste every year is worth about €47m.

An Amsterdam City Council official, Ms Carolien Gehrels, whose responsibilities include waste management, believes waste should not be seen as a problem but as an opportunity. “That’s the mind-shift we have to make,” she says. “Our waste-to-energy plant is a moneymaking machine. So I always say garbage is gold.”

Perhaps, then, this is the best approach as we struggle to manage rising mounds of trash. Recycling our waste will only get us so far. And even if all landfilling were to cease tomorrow, existing sites would still need managing. But while landfill dumps and waste incinerators have traditionally been mankind’s dirty secrets, with new technology and clever ideas applied to them, much of what we throw away can become useful – and extremely valuable.

Road to success

Like the ESPA, the DWMA promotes the interest of some 50 companies that are involved in collecting, recycling, processing, composting, incinerating and landfilling waste. The association's members range from small, regionally active companies to large companies that operate globally.

The Director of the association, Mr Dick Hoogendoorn, stated: "No one can create an innovative waste processing market by simply raising awareness.

What ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in The Netherlands, Hoogendoorn says, were the regulations implemented by the government such as 'Lansink's Ladder'. Over the years, recycling targets were put in place for the various waste streams, such as organic waste, hazardous waste and construction and demolition waste. Introducing a tax on every tonne of material landfilled was key as it gave waste processing companies the incentive to look for other methods – such as incinerating and recycling – simply because they were now much more attractive from a financial point of view.

“The waste market is very artificial,” says Hoogendoorn. “Without a system of laws and regulations for waste materials, the solution would simply be a waste disposal site outside of town to which all waste is taken. Such disposal sites or landfills often cause pollution and great risk to the health of citizens. If you don't offer that prospect to the company that incinerates the waste, they'll say, "what, do you think I'm crazy?" But if they see that the government is putting their money where their mouth is, they'll say, ‘I can build a furnace for that amount.’ The government sets the parameters, we fill in the details.”

Way forward

Ghana must seriously consider running with waste-to-energy ideas to solve two key problems the country is facing today- improve energy supply no matter how small, and to solve the challenges associated with solid waste management. The government must provide a conducive environment through legislation and financial support for the private sector to thrive in turning waste into something raliable.

Government must do more

Waste processing companies need prospects in order to develop profitable activities. Landfilling waste in The Netherlands currently costs approximately €35 per ton, plus an additional €87 in tax if the waste is combustible, which altogether is more expensive than incineration. “Suddenly incineration is an attractive alternative,” Hoogendoorn says. “If you don't offer that prospect to the company that incinerates the waste, they'll say, ‘what, do you think I'm crazy?’ But if they see that the government is putting their money where their mouth is, they'll say, ‘I can build a furnace for that amount.’ The government sets the parameters, we fill in the details.”

This shows that government policy is a critical factor. “Companies won't say ‘yes’ just like that,” he says. ‘They need the prospect of making a profit in the longer term.”

As Hoogendoorn quite rightly points out: “These bold concepts exist because the government assumes part of the risk by granting subsidies.”