December 6th, 2013
by Steve Watson
How are ladders, the Royal Dutch Football Association and the Christian concept of humanity’s stewardship of the planet connected with the creation of one of waste management’s best explanatory tools? The answer can be found in the life story of Ad Lansink. You may not have heard of him – he is little known outside of the Netherlands, his native country. But almost everyone in the waste sector is familiar with his work, which has helped shape the development of waste policy for over 30 years.
Climbing the rungs
Gerhardus Wilhelmus Adrianus Josephus (‘Ad’) Lansink was born in Arnhem, a large Dutch city on the banks of the river Nederrijn, on June 6th 1934. At the age of 30 he graduated from the University of Utrecht in mathematics and sciences, and became a lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Nijmegen, in the city he was to make his home.
Lansink became active in the Catholic People’s Party, and in 1970 was elected a member of the council of Nijmegen, which he eventually led. Voted into parliament in 1977, Lansink began work in the area with which his name would become most closely associated: energy and the environment.
In 1979 he submitted to parliament a motion containing what would come to be known by some as ‘Lansink’s Ladder’: a simple schematic presentation of the order of preference for waste management options, with disposal at the bottom and prevention at the top. The motion was adopted and the ladder became a critical tool in shaping Dutch waste policy. The waste hierarchy as we know it was born.
School of thought
The great thing about the waste hierarchy is its simplicity. Lansink’s Ladder only has five rungs (or six depending on how we classify recovery options): disposal, recovery, recycling, reuse, and prevention. By arranging them visually we are at once presented with a clear picture of how we should tackle waste.
As an educationalist, Lansink must surely have known the cruciality of presenting ideas in a simple and easy to remember format. It is his great achievement that he was able to condense environmental thinking in a way that is both memorable and instructive.
The ladder has been useful in influencing more than just policy makers. Lansink’s continued involvement in education and student welfare speaks of his sincere belief in the availability of knowledge for all, and with his ladder he has given the world a truly accessible tool for thinking about waste.
It’s interesting to reflect on the origins of Ad Lansink’s commitment to environmentalism, which I see as bound up with his Catholicism.
Some Christians find licence to exploit the planet from Biblical passages such as “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
However, European Christian Democratic parties, such as Holland’s Catholics People’s Party and Christian Democratic Appeal of which Ad Lansink has been a member, find a different ethos in the Bible. They emphasise the idea that God has given humanity stewardship over the Earth, rather than dominion, both for its inherent value and to pass on to future generations. On this view, the Earth is not ours to do with as we please. As Psalms 24 1–2 puts it: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.’
Prevalent as the influence of scripture is in Western thought, one might not have expected to find it in the genesis of the waste hierarchy. But the idea that instead of owning the earth we hold it in trust for our successors seems to lead naturally to a concern about using its resources wantonly. Nevertheless, it is tempting to muse on waste management practices in the early days of creation; just what did Adam and Eve do with that apple core?
It hasn’t been all ladders for Ad. He has continued his environmental work in other areas, opposing the building of the Betuweroute rail line (the most expensive Dutch infrastructure project in the nation’s history) and was for a time the chairman of the Gederland Environment Federation. He has been knighted twice, first in 1990 when he received the Order of the Dutch Lion for patriotism and accomplishment in science, and again in 1998 in the Order of Orange-Nassua for special service to society. He also found time to serve as the chairman of the amateur section of the Royal Dutch Football Association, ironically the lowest rung of the Netherlands’ football ladder.
While his name may no longer be so often attached to his greatest creation, we can all be grateful to Ad Lansink for helping to give waste management a leg up in the late twentieth century and beyond. Without him, we may have struggled to understand how far there was to climb, so let’s raise a glass to Ad Lansink, a truly top rung chap.