European Sweeping

While in Amsterdam, I had the opportunity to be the guest of long-time U.S. sweeping industry professional, Kelly Barker, who is the president of Michigan-based Metrosweep Environmental. Kelly happened to be in Amsterdam for several weeks finishing up business in another venture she's involved in.

Kelly has had the opportunity to see what's going on in the town, in terms of sweeping. She also came with me to the interview with the organization sweeping Amsterdam's Centrum Sweeping Division, which is responsible for cleaning the heavily-tourist visited central part of town. While sitting out in the balcony of her apartment, overlooking the tree-lined streets of the city, I asked Kelly what her analysis is of the overall job of sweeping being done by Amsterdam. The following is her assessment.

An American Contractor Views Amsterdam's Sweeping Program

by Kelly Barker, president
MetroSweep Environmental

I've now been in Amsterdam, off and on, for almost a year. Because I've been in the sweeping business for so long, I've given some amount of thought about the quality of Amsterdam's sweeping program. Frankly, I'm not that impressed.

What stands out perhaps foremost is that even some of the more obvious environmental steps are not being included. The people who precede their sweepers with brooms are, no question, introducing dust and debris into their canal system. There is also very little citizen awareness of the importance of keeping the city clean. As far as I can tell, there isn't any type of signage program to encourage citizens and tourists to use the trash cans which are full much of the time anyway.

When Ranger and I spoke to the Centrum Sweeping representative, he talked briefly about their publicity campaign. Their idea is, through radio spots, to convince locals that it's just as easy to put trash into a garbage can as it is to throw it on the ground. Even if that slogan works, which I'm not convinced of, there need to be more, and much larger, trash receptacles in the tourist areas.

They also need to work harder on educating their own citizens, as well as the visiting tourists, about the concept of not throwing trash down everywhere. I think if they used signage in, say, 3 languages, one of which is English, it would make a noticeable difference. As it is, I think the main areas aren't ever clean enough to encourage tourists to pick up after themselves. There needs to be better education of the public, but more frequency and more thoroughness in the cleaning job done, as well.

I think the core issue may be the basic attitude in Amsterdam that pretty much anything goes. Perhaps the central thread running through the Amsterdam population is an attitude of 'live-and-let-live.' It's a place where soft drugs are allowed, as well as prostitution, drinking in the streets, etc. I think people figure "Well, if it okay to do those things, I can probably just throw my trash down, too." That makes the job of the public works much harder.

Still, I think a big part of the problem keeping the City from moving to the next level is clearly they don't have garbage cans that are large enough and unloaded frequently enough. This is especially true in high traffic areas. Commercial dumpsters, too, are typically overloaded on a routine basis, and I usually see mounds of trash ringing them. I know space is more of a problem in Europe than it is in the U.S., but encouraging a climate of garbage bags lying about isn't good, either.

I'd also like to see more cooperation by other areas of the government. Let's take the example of dog poop, which has long been cited as the #1 problem. I think it's harder to convince a population about the importance of cleaning up after their dogs when the police horses are allowed to go directly on the streets. Putting a 'diaper system' on the horses would serve as a notice the city is serious about this issue.

When it comes to the frequency of cleaning, I think they're doing a reasonably good job, at least in the Centrum area where most of the tourists go. In the area where I live, in the next district over, the trees that border the road have some sort of problem that's causing them to drop leaves even now, in early summer. The walking areas have been covered with leaves for probably a couple of weeks now, and litter is now mixed in, yet there has been no cleaning done. This situation stretches for blocks, and would never get past a good contractor quality control program. The agencies seem to be getting main traffic areas routinely and often, but also leaving large areas where they seldom clean.

I think this type of situation isn't all that unusual in Amsterdam. At the root probably lies the fact there is no competition in sweeping. There aren't any parking lots, so there is not a market for contractors. Since there is no competition, there is no accountability for the municipal sweeping work force. All sweeping is paid for with tax money, and taxes are currently at about 40%. City workers, especially in a cradle-to-grave society like Holland, have a 'retirement mentality.' There's no entrepreneurial viewpoint that you have to keep getting better like we have in private business, or in our public works sector like we have now. Although we were told there is a checking system in place, it's obviously not working well for them. This isn't all that surprising, since they don't have anything to compare to.

I think an American sweeping contractor would make a number of changes to how the city is swept. Now, the government sends out 3-4 man teams with a sweeper. The way they're pre-cleaning in front of the sweeper, using twig brooms instead of some kind of air system like backpack blowers, the building/pavement corners always look bad. The men with twig brooms are also continuing to put material over the side and into the canals, since the edges don't have any type of lip. Backpacks would provide a much cleaner overall pavement area, and I think the background noise of the city would allow their use without problems. However, the bottom line is that if they had America's type of competitive contractor system in place there's no question in my mind that they'd get a better job for less money.

This current city dates from the 1200s, however it appears that if they don't get a handle on how people are trashing it their natural resource base will soon become depleted through pollution. If tourists came and saw a clear message that the Dutch residents expect visitors to keep their city clean, right along with them, that would go a long way toward solving the rampant litter and dog droppings problem.

[Editor's note: Just after leaving Amsterdam, I stopped in the city of Brugge, in Belgium. Although smaller than Amsterdam by some magnitude, Brugge has a large tourist population. Like Amsterdam, they also have historically had a problem with dog droppings and men peeing in inappropriate places. Throughout the city were education posters about the latter, along with notice of the 152 fine that goes along with getting caught.

Dog walkers are fined if they don't have a plastic 'pickup and disposal mitt' in their possession. The several store owners I talked to said this is also improving the dog litter problem in a hurry. Or, alternatively, perhaps they need to put the type of signs up that they do in North Vancouver, Canada...]

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