November 14th, 2014

Ask Ad: climbing Lansink’s Ladder

8 minute read

by Ad Lansink and Steve Watson


It was a little under a year ago that Isonomia ran an article on the life and work of Dutch former politician and father of the waste hierarchy, Ad Lansink. It turned out to be one of our most read pieces, and happily also came to Ad’s attention. Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the chance to bring his thoughts to an English speaking audience, working with him to produce four articles based on chapters of his book De Kracht van de Kringloop.

Ad’s thinking on environmental and resource management issues has been hugely influential since the 1970s, and remains highly relevant as we work out how to tackle waste in the 21st century.

With interest in Ad’s contribution to the world of waste management piqued, Isonomia was contacted by be Waste Wise. They suggested that it would be interesting to conduct an interview with Ad, with the questions to be supplied by the site’s readers – and both we and Ad agreed.

Here, then, is the first of two instalments of our interview with Ad Lansink. In this first part, the emphasis is on treatment options and tiers of the hierarchy, while in the second Ad will answer questions on the themes of zero waste and the circular economy.


  1. What do you think would be the best drivers to stimulate the sorting of waste in developing nations? For example: landfill tax, regulation, targets?


As in Europe, social behaviour and economic possibilities vary greatly between different developing nations. Therefore, there is no obvious general answer, and a mixed combination of instruments tailored to the social and economic possibilities of specific nations seems necessary.

Awareness of the value of prevention and recycling is of key importance, but nations with some experience or know-how can be driven by targets. Generally speaking, however, I prefer an educational approach of increasing awareness rather than setting specific targets, which can backfire.

Regarding regulation, the ‘polluter pays’ principle may be useful, especially in avoiding landfill. Ensuring safe energy production without harmful emissions is also essential. All in all, the best driver is probably regulation in combination with education. Furthermore, I advocate the transfer of proven separation techniques – including hardware – to developing nations.


  1. Are developed nations currently burning too much waste?


Yes, at least many of them. From a cost perspective waste incineration is explicable, as are the historical motivators of safety on health issues on the one side and volume reduction at the other. But many components of municipal waste are useful for a second, third and even longer life. Furthermore, there are of course close relations to the major global issues of climate policy and the increasing shortage of some raw materials.


  1. Is there currently too much emphasis on end-of-life solutions and not enough emphasis on prevention? For example, recycling and energy from waste are often thought of as complementary, while prevention is left out of the picture.


Indeed, in many countries there is too much emphasis on solutions such as land filling and incineration, and little attention given to prevention. Usually, the reason has to do with costs: dumping of waste in countries which have adequate space is by far the cheapest solution. Incineration is not so cheap, especially when the facilities meet the toughest emissions requirements, but is an easy option for countries and cities where people are not motivated to source-separate recyclables.

In the Netherlands, some companies and municipalities still prefer post-separation because of its easy logistics. However, producing high quality secondary raw materials by this method is very difficult. Placing recycling and EfW together under the generic label of “recovery” also tends to diminishes the drive to high-grade recycling and prevention.

It’s true though that the European Waste Framework Directive gives priority to prevention. Member States are even required to prepare prevention programs. However, prevention remains a difficult challenge thanks to the major emphasis on economic development and employment. The profits of many businesses are simply rooted in a huge turnover of their products.


  1. Waste prevention sits at the top of the hierarchy, but is hard to achieve through policy. How do we align taxes, incentives and other instruments in order to achieve waste prevention?


My preference is to follow two different paths. The first is the (international) alignment of taxes on primary raw materials, together with general or specific taxes on products, decreasing in proportion to the product’s sustainability. In other words: society pays less with an increasing lifetime or durability index. Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult approach, but worth a try – we already see a lower VAT rate on the renovation of buildings, and lower taxes on fuel-efficient or electric cars.

The second path concerns enhancing society’s awareness through education and information. The success of this approach in Belgium has taught that – especially with young people – interesting results can be achieved. Of course, financial incentives may also play a significant role.


  1. Do you think that the UK should build more energy from waste (EfW) infrastructure or instead make more use of spare capacity on the continent (e.g. Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany) instead?


My preference is building more EfW infrastructure, especially in densely populated areas with good infrastructure and facilities for source separating municipal waste. Furthermore, separate collection of green waste provides opportunities for fermentation plants which produce biogas for transport, heat and energy.

Research has shown that transporting waste to the continent does not significantly increase the environmental burden. But anyhow, using spare capacity on the continent increases the CO2-emissions of the Netherlands, Germany or Sweden, even when only half of the emissions are allocated to the incineration plants because of the partial uptake of CO2 by fast growing vegetation. Moreover, self-supply of facilities can inspire progress towards the higher rungs of the waste hierarchy, providing the waste is diverted from landfill with sufficient energy recovered.


  1. Do you think it’s possible for European member states to recycle 70% of their municipal waste?


The European Waste Directive classes the production of energy from waste within the scope of recovery. When this recovery remains ranked alongside recycling, the EU member states should certainly be able to recover at least 70% of their municipal waste.

However, because incineration with energy recovery must be considered a form of single re-use, this method of treatment should be seen as distinct from recycling. Under the strict definition of recycling, I don’t consider 70% to be feasible for all, but a figure of 50–60% may be more feasible. The large differences between Member States should already serve to signpost the risk of too high expectations.


  1. How has the way we think about waste changed in your lifetime, and what further changes in thought can we hope for in the future?


When I first grappled with the waste problem in the 1970s, a substantial amount of waste was still being landfilled. The phenomenon of consumerism, the report of the Club of Rome, and unsafe landfilling were amongst the reasons why I developed the concept of a waste hierarchy: the preference order from prevention, through recycling, to useful incineration and finally functional landfilling. This order of preference (later called Lansink’s Ladder) received public attention, and finally in 1993 a legal basis in Dutch regulation.

Between 1985 and now, landfilling of waste virtually disappeared in the Netherlands. The burning of waste has gradually improved into optimal systems with a maximal yield of energy and an extremely limited release of hazardous substances. In the last few years, there has also been an increase of fermentation of green waste (biomass) with production of energy, heat and biogas for transport purposes. Classic incinerators are being phased out and even closed. In the recycling sector mono-currents of secondary materials increasingly lead to high-quality raw materials. With prevention, the advances are less visible, except for the fields of sustainable products and extending the lifetimes of buildings, equipment and vehicles.

For the future, I predict more emphasis on ecodesign and supply chain management, as part of a move towards the otherwise difficult concept of a circular economy. Therefore, in the field of materials policy more attention will be paid to secondary raw materials.

Furthermore, I expect the gap between the domains of organic and inorganic (technic) materials to be bridged, for instance by research and development into the less explored field of phosphates. Avoiding food wastage – including spare food recycling – will also be an important issue. I mentioned already the driving force of sustainable energy policy, which calls for composting and digestion of bio-waste.

Continuous research on prevention and recycling is also important: measuring is knowing what is going to happen – especially in the field of raw materials and energy – and I’d predict developments in bio-, info- and nanotechnologies towards this end. Finally, the undisputed tension between the free market and government will lead to new, versatile instruments, including in education and awareness.


Ad Lansink and Steve Watson


Ad-Lansink-220x300 Steve Watson hs2


This interview is the product of collaboration between Isonomia and be Waste Wise.

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