Posts Tagged ‘Netherlands


Secure Trash

I sometimes wish I could have a user manual for urban interfaces in the Netherlands. You run into all sorts of machines all over the place, many of which appear to be designed by aliens with a poor understanding of human cognition and a very poor command of the Dutch language. One example is this garbage container, which I found in the streets of Apeldoorn.

The interface is on the left. The gates of hell are on the right. To judge by the picture on the front of the interface—which shows a rat sniffing around “loose” trash—there is some temptation to just skip the entire proceeding and leave one’s offerings at the gate instead.

How to operate the underground dumpster

How to operate the underground dumpster

Also, of course, it may fail to operate altogether, in which case you have to call someone. The instructions seem to suggest that you will then receive temporary access privileges for a different secure trash can a few streets away.

Or it could be full. For that unfortunate circumstance, I don’t see an instruction.


pretty picture

April 15, 2009 – Brielselaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Rotterdam, reportedly, is the only major city with an incinerator dead smack in the urban center. Of course, this being Rotterdam, there are other industries equally dead smack, since the city is built around a vast port that attracts all sorts of industrial activity. Still, there’s housing a long stone’s throw away from the ovens.

If you look at the plant on a nice day and from the right angle, across a swath of municipal daffodils and a little stand of poplars flaunting their brand-spanking-new leaves, it looks like a Potemkin village, a put-on job, an elaborate hoax. For all I know, it wasn’t actually operational when I was there. All the same, I am assured that some 385,000 tons of garbage are disappeared here annually. And the trash that I produced from 1968 to 1972 was done in here also, subsequently used for city heating as well as being converted to electricity.

Today the oven probably would not be sited here, but it’s got squatting rights. The first oven was built on this wharf along the Maas in 1910. A new oven was built in 1963. In 1990, the later ovens were updated and adjusted so they could handle the exhaust gases from the Maas Tunnel nearby. How cool. To be absolved not only of our plastic but of our driving!

This week, there was not a whiff of garbage to be noticed anywhere. No smoke and vapors belching out of the chimneys. No convoys of trucks driving in and out. A burnished metal facade hides the flue gas cleaning plant, which in turn hides the somewhat more utilitarian ovens. A screen at street level, endlessly and incongruously repeating photographic deep scarlet roses, is wrapped around the front like the bow on a birthday gift.  It is for sure a far cry from the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which, if you have a nose, you cannot possibly mistake for anything else but what it is.

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Even from the back, where most of the garbage arrives, by barge, it doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps they have a dedicated clean-up crew whose job it is to keep the plant spic and span at all times.

All the same, in the last review to determine whether the incinerator’s operating license should be renewed, environmental activists managed to persuade the government against the proposition. Interestingly, the argument was that energy returns¬† from the old ovens, which date to 1963, capture too little of the potential energy released in the incineration process to be considered environmentally responsible. So the flue gas treatment unit will stay, but a new oven will replace the current one in the near future. The cognitive dissonance, for the American visitor at least, remains.

Such an apparently pleasant, useful, and seemingly unexceptionable  incinerator raises a question: does a right-thinking garbage amateur prefer the spiffy harmlessness of the Brielselaan to the moldering, hulking, stinking menace of the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which is in violation of emission regulation on a regular basis. On the one hand, a socially beneficial technology that minimizes the self-destructive tendencies of a comfortable lifestyle. On the other hand, a public health threat, most immediately to the poor people living nearby.

The choice is inevitable. One cannot in good conscience come down against the poor people who have to breathe in the mistakes and carelessness of a poorly operated, technologically backward monster.

All the same, a good memento mori speaks a truth so wide and deep, there’s no carpe diem will come close.


Another Mountain

I was born in Hilversum, at a time when the nature area known as Anna’s Hoeve was still used as landfill and an open-air water purification system. I visited the place last year with my dad and found the “mountain” he used for sledding when he was a kid.

Later researches revealed that the mountain was built out of garbage (bottom layers) and soil excavated to make the decorative ponds across the road (higher elevations) as a public works project in the Depression. Reportedly, the garbage–mostly ashes and glass, since it dates to before 1933 or so–is coming to light in the walking trails. I had to go see for myself, of course.

I found an unusually high concentration of glass shards and and the remains of broken dishes–not quite the potsherds of legendary anthropological finds, I’ll admit. I frankly thought they looked so new, so clean, actually, that I had trouble imagining that they had been buried in dirt for 75 years or more. But who knows, maybe they are the real thing, vintage garbage, so to speak. (This in opposition to recent contamination, the handiwork of partying teenagers, which, I hardly need to point out, does not have nearly the same cachet. In fact, I saw very little trash that was indubitably “new.”)

It’s interesting how garbage is transformed by the ages. Where up-to-the-moment garbage is repulsive, time not only disinfects by decomposition of organics, but hallows by remoteness and singularity. If a few broken potsherds is all we know of a vanished people, then those potsherds become treasures. In Europe at least, they have traditionally taken on an eponymous/metonymous character, as they bestow their qualities on the people who created them, for lack of other known identifying characteristics.

The Netherlands were inhabited in prehistoric times by the bell beaker people, a very large group loosely scattered across huge swaths of Western Europe. Local distinctions break the larger group down into smaller huddles of people who made tulip beakers, others who made corded ware, herring-bone beakers, band ceramics, and zone beakers. By comparison, the people whose dishes are coming to light at Anna’s Hoeve are the mass-produced factory-ware people. I’m afraid current tribes would mostly show up as the disposable-cup folk. It’s tough for me to imagine how many centuries would have to go by to hallow that.

My climb to the top of the mountain revealed that the natural ponds on the other side of the mountain–where the makeshift water purification system once operated–are being dug up. The contamination that was found in the 1970s is finally being cleaned up, it seems.

Larensche Was

More interestingly, once on top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I might be standing on the highest point in the entire province of North Holland. I don’t know, it’s maybe 25 or 30 meters high. What else is there that could compete in the flat lands of North Holland? There are a few high-ish dunes near Haarlem, but that’s just about the only possible competition. Then again, there may be garbage mountains elsewhere in the province that reach even higher.

The Netherlands is lucky to have hung on to the province of Limburg in the 17th century. The southernmost reaches of the Ardennes lift the land there above the garbage summits scattered throughout the united provinces, so we narrowly escape the ignominy of being the people whose garbage towers over absolutely everything else.


Weber’s Pit

As best I can understand, some of my garbage slumbers here in Weber’s Pit–somewhere underfoot or in the aspiring ski-slope atop the cumbrous piles. Until the late 1970s, this was just farmland. Then, the construction company Weber dug out sand as the foundation for the motorway Utrecht-‘s Hertogenbosch, creating a huge pit. Now of course the pit is nowhere to be seen. A part of it was filled up with garbage that eventually rose a respectable distance into the air while another part filled up with water, as tends to happen with pits in the Netherlands.

From on top of the bump, I bet I could get a pretty good view of Utrecht, but not today. It’s indecently cold and wet and blustery. Even the measly trees look sorry they ended up in this mess.

Put van Weber


The Highest Point in Drenthe

The Netherlands started out in its career in modern history as a combination of morass and hard-scrabble country. Pliny reports that the morass dwellers looked like shipwrecked sailors: “They try to warm their frozen bowels by burning mud, dug with their hands out of the earth and dried to some extent in the wind more than the sun, which one hardly ever sees.” The more stable uplands in the back country could only with the greatest effort be made to yield a meagre subsistence to small huddles of peasants. Not exactly the land of milk and honey.

The soggy lowlands were eventually improved, but the hard-scrabble uplands pretty much stayed that way into the 20th century, when the Dutch government hatched a scheme to transport garbage from the western cities, which had become overwhelmed by their own trash, to poor Drenthe, for use as soil amendments. A nice instance of what I like to think of as social metabolism, the exchange of food and ordure between urban and agricultural areas to keep the whole thing in more or less in balance.

I was born in one such trash-embarrassed city, Hilversum, which started exporting its leftovers to Drenthe in the early 1960s and lived for a while in Amersfoort, which started participating some time in the 1950s I believe. I hereby publicly take responsibility for having done my best for Drenthe.

Garbage Boil

Anyhow, what started out as a large-scale composting venture eventually got derailed by cheap chemical fertilizers. And all of that is why Drenthe has a gigantic garbage dump, repository of noncompostable trash from its early days and from trash not suitable for incineration more recently, all of it cemented together by the ashes produced by the ovens next door. More than 20 million cubic meters of unpleasantness quietly simmers below the surface of the neatly landscaped hills, like a boil in the skin of the earth.

A View of Drenthe, from Atop the Trash

In fact, the thing is still growing, as the waste stream from the west has diminished but not dried up. At more than 40 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the entire province of Drenthe. Ironically, it is the best vantage point from which to admire the local landscape.

The dump is now also a park, very lovely if you don’t pay too much attention to the plastic bags that escape from the active face and blow about here and there before being snagged by the orange-vested workers patrolling the trails. A little visitor center at the summit maintains a guest book, in which I found the following roughly-translated entry, probably written by a high school student on a field trip: “I think it is incredibly beautiful here, but it’s a pity there’s so much trash lying around. If you guys just pick it up, it would be really nice.”

Oude Diep

At the foot of the slopes runs the peaceful little river Oude Diep, recently restored, where a father and his son are angling for fish. Putting the catch on the dinner table might would require quite a bit of optimism, it seems to me. More than I think I could muster.


Following the Trail

When I lived in Utrecht, as a student, the garbage from the city was first taken to a wharf, where the trash was transfered to barges. The wharf has now been turned into a park, because the site is too contaminated to do anything else with it.

Biltsche Grift

The trash was dumped in the Mastwijkse Plas, a pond that may have been dug for sand originally. In the leaden winter light, without a leaf on the trees, the place looks just about as disconsolate as it is possible for a pond to look.

Mastwijkse Plas


Geology of Trash

My brother arranged for a tour of the local dump in Amersfoort, where I lived from 1972 to 1977 or so. I still visit occasionally because my parents are there. The tour is an outside chance, a singular piece of good luck. A regular citizen doesn’t have ready access to garbage once it’s passed into the hands of the people who make away with it. I’ve eyed the mountain from the motorway to Amsterdam, wondering how I could get close enough for a good picture.

The Outward Face

I’ve admired especially the herd of deer that maintains the grass at the appropriate height free of charge, although I’ve also seen a flock of sheep wandering like dirty clouds across the brow of the garbage tumulus. The animals are undoubtedly there to inspire warm fuzzy thoughts in the passing motorists.

Definitely, the mountain puts its best face forward, grassy slopes with cute animals turned out. But there’s no denying that, if all goes according to plan, the mountain will be the highest point in Amersfoort in some 15 to 20 years. And on top, the whole thing looks distinctly menacing, hosting a variety of recycling operations as well as ongoing dumping of materials that are too dangerous to burn.

Compost in the making

July 2018
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