Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

Recycling depot makes raw materials and paid jobs from waste

26 October 2023 9:00

At Rotterdam's Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, local residents use their talents to provide paid services. One of those services is the Grondstoffenstation, or Recycling Depot, where twelve people who live in the neighborhood are lending new direction to their lives and proving that circularity is perfectly feasible.

In Rotterdam South, between Maashaven and Feyenoord Stadium, lies the Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood. It is an area infamous for poverty and high rates of unemployment, but also rich in culture and talent. What if we apply that richness to improve the neighborhood from within, together with the residents themselves? In 2008, that question heralded the establishment of what is now the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative. Annet van Otterloo, the co-op's general coordinator, has been involved since 2013.

‘It all started with an art project by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk,’ she explains. ‘The Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood has a twice-weekly market with 300 stalls. Traders, local residents and artists put their heads together to come up with ideas to increase the market's appeal and revenues. Think entertainment, music, fashion shows. In time, other activities started to be organized that had nothing to do with the market itself, which led ultimately to the establishment of today's neighborhood co-op.’

At the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, locals employ their talents to provide paid services, like catering and clothing repairs. Often coming from a situation dependent on benefits, the work increases people's economic independence and gives them the sense that they are truly a part of society again. ‘When people work and are shown appreciation for what they do, it gives them strength. Mentally, too.’

No heaps of waste, but heaps of work

One of the cooperative’s services has to do with the market where it originated, explains Annet. ‘The Afrikaander market generates more than 6,000 kilograms of waste each day and although it used to be collected by the local council in the evenings, a lot of it would invariably get blown by the wind into the surrounding streets. The municipal authorities considered the heaps of waste a problem; we saw heaps of work that could be done by local residents. And we saw opportunities for the waste itself, as much of it could be turned into recycled raw materials.’

“To us, the waste from the market represented an honest job for local residents”

In 2015, the co-op decided to exercise its “right to challenge”, which allows citizens and organizations to shape and run local services where they believe they can do so differently and better. ‘We soon persuaded the local authorities that our Grondstoffenstation recycling depot could solve the problem of market-related waste and got the green light,’ says Annet.

‘The depot is the central collection point for all waste generated by the market. Throughout the day, twelve employees collect waste direct from the stalls, which makes it very attractive for the market traders to take part in the scheme – they’re all for recycling, but it has to be practically feasible.’

Our new building is circular and designed so that the whole neighborhood benefits

Earning an income on a cleaner world

Although the initial collection and recycling pilot had no location of its own, a temporary collection station was erected on site at the market in 2021. Staff sort and weigh cardboard, wood and plastic, as well as residual fruit and vegetables. In 2022, a total of 336,000 kg of cardboard, 108,000 kg of wood, and 114,000 kg of fruit and vegetables were processed. Plastics are not separately weighed. The different types of waste are put into dedicated press containers, which when full are collected by waste processing companies.

‘Staff attach great value to being able to contribute to a cleaner world,’ says Annet. ‘But it’s also work. A lot of work. The people here are in tow from six in the morning until ten at night. And it can be dirty. So they receive payment accordingly. Their salaries are paid from the revenues generated by the waste streams. Old cardboard is worth quite a lot. For now, wood actually costs us money to dispose of but, fortunately, the municipality of Rotterdam has agreed to foot the bill until that changes.’

“When people work and are shown appreciation, it gives them strength. Mentally, too”

Community hotspot

The only thing the project still lacked was a permanent recycling depot, but the waste streams from the market didn’t yield sufficient revenues to afford building one. That’s where Rabo Foundation, in conjunction with the DOEN Foundation and a number of others, saw an opportunity to help out.

Annet: ‘The recycling station was designed by Superuse Studios, an architects collective that creates circular concepts, and was officially opened in the fall of 2023. It is made of recycled materials and collects water that is used for cleaning and to water plants. The green roof offers space for school gardens and a section of a freerunning course, and the rear of the building is a grandstand that faces Cruyff Court. All in all, the new depot is a bit of a community hotspot – and it boasts a greater capacity than the old, temporary depot, so the volumes of waste we process are going to increase.’

Annet is delighted with everything that the co-op has achieved with the recycling depot. In addition to the “hard” results in terms of circularity and employment opportunities, there are “soft” effects, too. ‘I see the pride on employees’ faces, people growing close to each other, older staff taking youngsters under their wing. To many people, often coming from a very difficult place, this work is a new beginning.’

Rabo Foundation & the Grondstoffenstation recycling depot

‘The recycling depot is a perfect match for our objectives,’ enthuses Nynke Struik, Program Manager Netherlands at Rabo Foundation. ‘We focus on businesses that provide jobs for people distanced from the labor market, and that work on innovative solutions to problems of social relevance. With its recycling initiative, Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative does both: the depot creates jobs and separates waste for reuse.’

‘They extended the co-op’s concept to the new, circular building. Its realization shows the local municipality, market traders and residents alike that circular is perfectly feasible. It’s a super cool initiative that we’re very pleased to be a part of through our donation towards its permanent accommodation.’

The Grondstoffenstation recycling depot is just one of the ways Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative promotes a clean neighborhood and proud community. Curious to find out what else they do?