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Rotterdam has one of the most advanced waste systems in the world, utilising a large stock of more than 6,500 underground bins equipped with remote sensing equipment to inform logisticians when they are approaching capacity and reduce the risk of overflowing containers. Rotterdam’s waste collection system results in negligible quantities of waste being sent to landfill, and more than 53% being collected for or reclaimed for recycling. In 2022, Rotterdam has moved beyond a resource recovery from waste approach and has begun to fully embrace the concept of the circular economy.

Despite Rotterdam’s world class waste and resource management system, small amounts of waste become mismanaged every year in the city. We applied the Plastic Pollution Calculator to 13 of the 14 districts that make in the municipality to improve understanding of where when and why this mismanagement occurs, and to suggest options for interventions to further reduce the emission of macro-plastic waste items into the environment.

We found that the amount of macro-plastic escaping from Rotterdam’s waste management system was comparatively small, with approximately 9.4 tonnes of waste being emitted into the environment in 2019. The majority does so as a result of littering and fly-tipping, with some smaller but significant quantities escaping whilst waste is awaiting collection when bins are left full, open or when waste is placed alongside containers rather than within them. Key hotspots for environmental emissions of macro-plastic waste are the district of Delfshaven, Charlois and Feijenoord, from which almost half of all Rotterdam’s emissions originate. However on a per capita basis, the district of Centrum is one of the highest emitters due to its relatively low residential population and very high footfall from tourists and visitors from other districts who go there to enjoy its shops, restaurants, cafes and bars.

Around half of the waste (4.4 tonnes) that reaches the terrestrial compartment each year is blown or washed into the many waterways that striate the land surrounding the Nieuwe Maas river. This is a comparatively high proportion compared to many other parts of the world, not because the probability of waste entering the water is particularly high, but because the proportion allowed to remain on land is very low, being hunted and captured by the cities 500+ (full time equivalent) cleaning operatives who patrol the city’s streets every day. That said, all of the municipality’s population live within 2 km of water, with a large majority living within 1 km. This means that any waste generated is created within a comparatively high risk zone to enter waterways.

In the context of such high quality waste management and a generally well-behaved population, designing interventions to prevent this small amount of plastic pollution is a substantial challenge. We suggested five interventions which could be considered by the Municipality or other interested stakeholders. Whilst efforts to clean up material that has escaped the system are likely to have a substantial impact, reducing material inputs to the system are possibly the only way to reach a ‘net zero’ ambition. This means designing materials for recycling, or eliminating problematic materials so that they can never reach the environment. Three streams make up nearly half of all environmental emissions: plastic bottles (23% wt. environmental emissions); plastic bags (13% wt.); and single use food service disposables (7% wt.). In each case, the utility offered has the high potential, to be replaced with reusable alternatives, potentially halving waste emissions to the environment in the city.