A Piece of Trash

There are parts of Holland that look like Venice. Charming, well-maintained, respectful of a long and rich history.

And there are parts that do not.

In Amsterdam, there’s an ingenius system of underground garbage collection. Because of a severe lack of space, residents don’t put their garbage out on the street on certain days to be picked up. They just bring it to the closest green or gray box, open the door and drop it down into a container underground.

Those containers get emptied out once or twice a week, but there’s also, despite strict regulations about not leaving garbage beside the boxes if the containers are full, a culture of dumping anything and everything there.

It’s usually the kind of stuff – old computers, beds, metal frames, old and broken furniture, that shouldn’t be thrown out with regular garbage, and to be fair, a great deal of it is picked up by other residents and taken to new homes. What isn’t is eventually picked up by a special collection team (who will also rifle through these things and if there’s any indication of who’s thrown it on the street, will present that person with a ticket and fine to pay).

Because the local dumps for large and dangerous items are on the outskirts of the city, and because a lot of people here don’t own a car (or own a car that’s too small to take the big garbage to the place where it’s supposed to go), there’s an incredibly convenient solution. You call the city, tell them what you have, and they tell you what day and time to set it out in front of your house, so as not to clutter the streets.

Then they pick it up for free. But perhaps they need an educational campaign, or at the very least a new marketing strategy, since not many people seem to make use of this service. In fact, it was more difficult for me to find a box that didn’t have garbage tossed all around it, than ones that did.

On a stroll through the Vondelpark on the morning afer a sunny, warm day, one encounters more garbage strewn across the grass by picnickers and revellers than grass itself.  An inordinate amount (154 tonnes each year) of garbage is created in the park, and to get the message out to its visitors, the city made the decision to not be so hasty about cleaning it up. After 2 years of that policy, people’s behaviour hasn’t changed much, if at all. Clearly the motto “Pack it in, pack it out” loses its gently pleading moral tone after a few drinks in the sun, and becomes annoying or inconvenient enough to be ignored.

Last year there was a garbage strike in Amsterdam that lasted about 2 weeks. The garbage on the streets and by those residential containers built up, of course, but more shocking to me than the immediate picture of how much garbage we create and how fast (Robin Nagle says New York City, which trucks some of its garbage as far as the state of Georgia, over 1000 kilometres away, is always only 3 days away from a garbage meltdown) was the amount of small litter at Central Station. Instead of pocketing their chocolate wrappers or used Kleenexes or water bottles, people chose to drop them on the ground, even while complaining about the garbage they were seeing around them.

I’m not sure if it’s a changing general attitude toward garbage, or just an indication and reminder of exactly how densely people live in Amsterdam, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that it’s a problem the world over. I spoke with Donovan Hohn last week, who went to one of the most untouched places in the world to watch a handful of men clean up 40 tons – nearly 3000 very large bags – of garbage that had collected there from all over the world simply because of a marriage of geography, landscapes and ocean currents. And the waste itself, of course.

He said the problem in part is language. We say “throw away” because in our minds, once we dispose of the garbage we’ve created, it’s gone. We bury it, or burn it and it disappears. But it doesn’t. It winds up somewhere. Some part of it, if not all of it, remains.