Waste in Laak: A Persistent Problem

Jasper Heijmans says he has a very intimate relationship with waste. He used to work as a garbage man in college, both driving the truck and working in the back, throwing in the trash bags. Growing up, 40 years ago, nobody separated trash – “we just started out with the bags and everybody just threw it out.” A lot has changed since then. 

Nowadays, waste separation is the norm – often even the law. So is the proper disposal of waste. In Laak, the neighborhood in The Hague where we talked to Mr. Heijmans, a number of issues with waste separation and disposal exist. Inhabitants are annoyed and the municipality is alarmed. Who exactly is responsible, though, depends on who you ask.

Full containers and litter on the streets

Two of the biggest problems Laak faces regarding waste management are overflowing containers and excess trash on the street. 

Although collection trucks usually arrive on time to pick up household waste, recycling containers are often full – overflowing multiple times a week. This leads to excess trash being left next to the containers, or in the worst case scenario, being thrown on the ground. 

Grace Boekel, a resident of Laak, says “there is glass everywhere, everyday” around the recycling containers by Lorentzplein. “Giant bags of plastic are often placed at the side of the bins, and sometimes there are cardboard boxes everywhere.” 

The containers are full maybe two, three times a week.

Others, like Yuri Meijer, also question why these containers are full in the first place – “they don’t seem to empty the bins as much as they should.” The paper and plastic bins are “full all the time,” leading to waste being disposed of improperly and it going “all over the place.” 

Statistically, Laak has one of the worst problems with trash on the street compared to any other district in the city.

According to the municipality’s statistics website, Laakkwartier and Spoorwijk had almost five times more reports of waste-related issues than The Hague’s average in 2021.

Further, a survey conducted by Dimensus in 2020 showed that residents of Laak were generally unhappy with the cleanliness of their district. 37% of people believed their streets were getting more dirty from the period 2016-2020, while a significant 66% of people were dissatisfied with the cleanliness of their own street. 

“It’s a mess here,” says Boekel. Even the trash that’s put out for pickup by collection trucks can turn into litter. “There’s a lot of seagulls here that peck at the garbage bags on the streets,” and again, “it gets everywhere.” 

Meijer agrees that the district “sometimes has problems with the birds,” although he believes that Laak is “generally” clean.

Unclear responsibilities

Whose fault the overflowing waste containers and littered streets are is subject to a lot of debate. In Laak, many inhabitants say it is their own responsibility.

Those cameras – mobile CCTV units positioned next to the recycling bins – are part of a pilot project of the municipality to combat the dumping of waste next to the bins. On a rotating basis, three real and two fake camera units are positioned at 19 locations in Laak and Transvaal over a period of six months. 

We contacted the municipality about this. That only Laak and Transvaal are included in the pilot, said a representative, is because these 19 locations “are places where a large amount of rubbish was dumped over the past six months.” 

Our question how individuals’ identities are supposed to be determined with the cameras in order to execute the threatened fines was left unanswered. Inhabitants of Laak, however, are generally happy about the cameras being there.

Still, the question remains what role the municipality plays in the issue itself. While individual laziness might play a role, some also argue that the government doesn’t do enough to help make things easier. 

One issue, says Max, another resident of Laak, is the difficulty in accessing information, especially in languages other than Dutch. He is not the only one who thinks so. 

We raised these issues with the municipality. In an email response, they asserted: “The municipality is aware that some people experience difficulties in offering their waste. It is therefore that the municipality did a pilot with communicating in different languages in Laak, Escamp and the City Center.” This pilot is a flyer with easily understandable instructions on how to dispose of trash correctly in Dutch, Turkish, Arabic, English, Polish, and Bulgarian. According to the evaluation of the project, the flyers were perceived well. 

To our question whether the municipality is aware of the issue of overflowing waste bins – and inhabitants urging for more frequent pick-ups – the municipality responded: “Currently, the municipality has a system of dynamic collection. Many of the containers in the city have a sensor that, when a cluster of them is 80% full, sends a signal to our collector that the containers must be emptied. As such, the issue of containers overflowing should be significantly decreased compared to a few years ago.”

In the end, though, it is only together that the municipality and inhabitants can achieve change. Both are trying – be it individuals who pick up trash flying around or the city running communication campaigns involving locals, such as the campaign “Schoon Doen We Gewoon”

A successful tool getting inhabitants and municipality to cooperate is the MyCleanCity-App and a corresponding webpage, with which users can report both trash on the streets as well as full or broken containers. Hannah Gläser, a student living in Laakkwartier-West, regularly uses the website to report misplaced waste. She says the process works very well: usually, after at most three days, the reported waste is gone.

Waste as a wider issue

Although surveillance is seen by many as a net-positive for Laak as a neighborhood, some see the municipality’s current policies as problematic. 

Dr. Elena Burgos Martinez is a professor of Leiden University’s Institute for Area Studies, with political ecology as her area of expertise. She believes that targeted plans which focus on Laak’s waste problem are unrepresentative of the larger issues at hand. 

There’s a tendency to think, from the perspective of other people in The Hague, that it’s just an individual thing that these people are naturally dirty, or naturally misbehaving.

Measures like the installation of security cameras pick out individuals who recycle their trash improperly. This is “convenient,” according to Dr. Burgos Martinez, “because when you blame the individual, it removes accountability from the institutions and the industry.” 

In order to solve this problem, a different solution is required. Rather than looking at individual errors, the municipality should look at the wider set of issues that affect Laak – namely “racial discrimination, as well as socioeconomic status.” 

When you look at Laak, don’t only look at the waste. How well maintained are the buildings, what are the living conditions of people there? Do you think people have a choice to wait once a week for the waste collection service? So they produce more plastic than other neighborhoods not because they want to, but because of the status and the discrimination they’re going through.

By focusing on inclusive policymaking that eases the burdens of racial discrimination and socioeconomic status, the issue of excess trash may also be mitigated. Dr. Burgos Martinez puts forward one such solution: making supermarkets like EkoPlaza more accessible for members of this community– ”why can recycling or buying products with less plastic only be for the upper classes?”

Many people in Laak see surveillance as a viable option for reducing the issue of waste in the district. However, a comprehensive approach that also tackles issues inherent in Laak, rather than the consequences of those issues that waste represents, may lead to greater changes in the neighborhood.