Dive into the Dutch recycling habits

What the trash?!?

In Italian dormitories, students sometimes have up to ten waste containers to separate their garbage. But students from Moldova aren’t used to any regulations around recycling. ‘I learned it can even earn you money. I did not expect that!’
By Yoana Petrova / Video by Lidian Boelens and Rianne Aalbers
13 January om 12:18 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 18 January 2021
om 19:55 uur.
January 13 at 12:18 PM.
Last modified on January 18, 2021
at 19:55 PM.

Stefan Ivanov, who’s doing a bachelor in international relations and international organizations, never thought recycling could be so complicated. But one night when he was cleaning up after a party in the dorms of his SSH student house, his flatmates started laughing at him. 

‘I threw everything in the same garbage bag’, he says. ‘They told me that here, in the Netherlands, biodegradable waste, paper, and plastic are separated.’ At first, he thought it was strange. ‘But then I found out it can also be a way to save some money for an extra beer at the next party. You can earn money from recycling. I did not expect that!’

Not the norm

Stefan grew up in Bulgaria, where recycling is not the norm. The authorities do very little to regulate the way people dispose of their rubbish. His home country does not have a deposit system like in the Netherlands, where you pay 25 cents extra for a plastic bottle, or 10 cents for a beer bottle. The money is returned to you when you hand in these bottles in the supermarket. 

People in Bulgaria hardly use the different containers

That doesn’t mean that recycling doesn’t exist, though. Incomes are low, so reusing is a big deal in Bulgaria. People try to save on everything; they’ll use old ice cream containers to store dinner leftovers or use a glass jar for an ashtray. But the absence of clear rules results in a lot of garbage in the streets, as people deposit their refuse next to rubbish containers rather than in them.

‘In Bulgaria, we have these big grey containers located on every street where people can get rid of their garbage. There are different colour containers for the different types of waste in some places, but people hardly use them’, Stefan says.

More or less strict

Social psychologist Ellen van der Werff, who specialises in sustainable behaviours, is not surprised. These countries may have environmental policies on paper, but often forgo imposing them in favour of solving more urgent problems in the field of economics, healthcare, or social policies. 

The Dutch recycling culture is strict towards the separation of garbage, she says. ‘Generally, the Netherlands stays on the positive side of the spectrum of recycling, though. Countries such as Italy or Germany have far more and stricter policies. But of course, there are also countries like Moldova, where garbage collection is not regulated at all.’ 

Access to facilities is really important, says Van der Werff. ‘If we make it easier for people to separate garbage, they’ll be more likely to do so. However, it is also extremely important to make students aware of the long-term results of pollution.’ 

Reusing and recycling, she stresses, will result in the conservation of natural resources, since we can use recycled materials. It can also aid in slowing down the process of global warming.

Dutch system

Fortunately, the recycling system in Groningen is quite simple. Beer bottles go back to the supermarket, your stack of old newspapers and other paper waste is either gathered once a month by the municipality or you can dump it in a paper waste container, and you can get rid of your old jars and bottles in the glass container near your supermarket. You can leave plastic waste and tins in with the rest of the trash, as the city does post-recycling; further separation after the garbage has been collected. 

International students may nevertheless feel confused when they first come to the Netherlands, because they come from a different recycling culture. 

The container stayed in the backyard for a month

Xin Wang, a Chinese PhD student, says that people in China recycle depending on where in the country they live, with people in smaller cities reusing and recycling resources in an effort to save money. ‘I remember how my mother was trying to save money, so she would reuse the water we were washing our vegetables in to clean the bathroom.’ 

However, he had expected more coming to Groningen: ‘When I first went to the university building, I wanted to make an effort and separate garbage carefully, since I knew recycling was a big deal in the Netherlands. There were some containers for plastic and a few for paper, but that was it.’ 


For Moldovan law student Otilia Vatavu, the Dutch recycling system seemed challenging to adapt to at first. I remember when I first moved to Vinkhuizen, I had no idea that there was a strict day and time when we were supposed to take the container out. It was summer, and it was hot. None of my housemates were home and I didn’t take the trash out. The container stayed in the backyard for a month. I was disgusted.’

But Italian-born law student Eva Fava feels like Groningen is not doing a lot at all.  ‘In Italy, recycling is taken very seriously’, she says. ‘In most of the cities, we have a door-to-door separation system, where the trash is sometimes checked. If it’s not separated correctly, you get a fine. Here in Groningen, I don’t see many spots where people can have detailed separation and those that do exist are quite far apart.’  


Yes, Groningen is a clean and green city, but if Italian people are able to set up a detailed separation system, the Dutch should be able to, as well. ‘In Italian dormitories, students sometimes have up to ten different waste containers. When I lived in an SSH house in my first year, the containers for glass were ten minutes away. Bottles were lying all over the place. I was angry every time after a party.’

We’ve turned recycling into a bonding activity

German Finn Baumhöver also feels that the Dutch – and the UG – could do more. ‘In Germany, we have containers for paper, glass and biodegradable waste, but there are also subcategories for garbage separation.’ Universities in Germany have multiple trash cans everywhere.

For Eva, it took a couple of years to let go of her Italian habits and find the middle ground. She collects the bottles in the house and throws them away once every two weeks with her housemates. ‘It’s turned recycling into a great bonding activity.’

In Groningen, paper, glass, and textiles, as well as chemical waste, are collected separately. Paper and textiles are collected at your house once a month. Glass goes into the containers that are usually located close to your supermarket. You’ll also find extra paper and textile containers there. For chemical waste you’ll have to go to a collection point nearby – also once a month. Organic waste is only collected separately if you live outside of the city centre. Check the municipality’s Afvalwijzer

You can hand in small electrical items at electronics stores like Mediamarkt, or at hardware stores. For larger items, like old refrigerators, you can call the municipality to pick them up. All other waste goes into your grey general waste bin or underground container.

That may sound easy, but sometimes it’s still hard to determine what goes where. Here are a few examples to help you out:

Empty pizza box 

Sure, it’s made of paper, but the grease on the paper, as well as potential cheese and sauce residue make it unfit for recycling. So: general waste.

Windowed envelope

Worried about the plastic ‘window’ in the paper envelope? No need: you can still throw them in the paper bin. The plastic is separated from the paper during the recycling process.


You thought it would be organic, didn’t you? But no… there’s plastic in the bag, so you have to throw it in the general waste bin.

Broken beer glass

Yes, it’s glass, but no, don’t throw it in the glass container. Drinking glasses contain crystal, which may disrupt the glass recycling process. General waste it is! The same goes for window glass or the heat-resistant glass oven dishes are made of.

Bottle of nail polish

Sure, it’s full of chemicals, but you can still throw it in the glass container. During the recycling process, the nail polish is dried and removed (just like the lid). The glass is reused.