Elements of Dutch waste management

In the late 1980s, the Netherlands suffered from a lack of landfill capacity and insufficient thermal treatment capacity. This urged a change in waste management policy with the following results: the amount of waste land filled decreased from 35% in 1985 to 2.2% in 2016; the rate of recovery (including Waste-to-energy) rose from 50% to 93% and more and more waste is collected separately. Currently, 77% of our waste is recycled and the residual waste is mainly used for energy production.

The main 5 elements that helped to achieve these results are:

  1. Order of preference for waste management (waste hierarchy)
  2. Stringent waste treatment standards
  3. Planning on national level
  4. Producer responsibility
  5. Use of various (economic) instruments to stimulate prevention and recycling

1. The order of preference

The Dutch approach is to avoid creating waste as much as possible, recover usable and valuable raw materials and generate energy by incinerating residual waste. Landfilling is only allowed for waste streams for which no recovery or incineration is possible. This approach is known as 'the order of preference'.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle: the order of preference has been the guiding principle from the start and is as follows:


(a) prevention
(b) preparing for reuse
(c) recycling
(d) other recovery, e.g. energy recovery
(e) disposal

2. Stringent waste treatment standards

In order to reduce the environmental pressure arising from waste management, stringent standards were introduced. For example:

  • standards for soil protection from landfilling
  • standards for the quality of secondary materials derived from waste (building materials)
  • air-quality standards for incineration
  • quality standards for organic fertilizers (from bio-waste)
  • a ban on landfill for 35 waste-streams (basically all waste streams suitable for recovery or incineration are not allowed on landfills)

3. Planning at national level (in close cooperation with local governments)

The realisation that cooperation is necessary for effective waste management resulted in the establishment of the Waste Management Council in 1990. The Council was established on the basis of a voluntary agreement between the three tiers of government (national, provincial and local) to achieve a joint and coherent approach for the waste management challenge. The Council no longer exists; its work ended in 2006 because all its targets had been met and waste was no longer an important item on the political agenda.
However, cooperation between the different tiers of government still exists for defining policies, implementation and enforcement.

4. Extended producer responsibility (EPR)

Extended producer responsibility means that producers or importers are responsible, or share responsibility, for the management of the products that they have or will put on the market when these products are discarded. This responsibility can be agreed upon voluntarily (and where desired supported by the Minister responsible for a universally binding agreement on a waste management fee) or through legislation. Instruments for promoting producer responsibility are generally used in combination with other instruments, e.g. the introduction of landfill bans and landfill tax levies.

5. Use of various instruments to stimulate prevention and recycling

Enforcement of legislation
Without enforcement, waste management simply does not work. An advanced waste tracking and monitoring system has been developed to support enforcement.

Financial instruments
Instruments like landfill tax and volume-based waste fee systems help achieve the shift towards less landfilling and more recovery and recycling of waste.

Separate collection
A good and approachable collecting system is a good instrument. There are systems for the separate collection of organic waste, paper and cardboard, plastics and glass.
Furthermore, every municipality must have a location where people can sort and dispose of their waste: the public amenity centre.

Effective communication
Raising public and community awareness: communication and education are essential.
Engaging the public at large and providing the necessary feedback on the success (or not) of these separate collection and diversion programmes and what it means in terms of environmental quality or monetary savings are instrumental.