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Recycled goods
“Vandal proof and safe”
More than 95% of cars in the Netherlands are recycled and put to good use. And that is impressive. However, there is still a long […]

More than 95% of cars in the Netherlands are recycled and put to good use. And that is impressive. However, there is still a long way to go in the recycling of other means of transport. Take the train, for example. At present, 97% of the materials are reused. On top of this, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways, NS) gives its railway carriages a second life after about twenty years.

Tekst Jens Holierhoek

Fotografie NS and Marcel Bakker

A train’s life is not a bed of roses. It has to work every day from early morning to late at night, in all weathers. Packed to the gills during rush hour and fully loaded with travellers on days out in the weekend. According to the CBS (Statistics Netherlands), train users travelled 16.9 billion kilometres by train in 2016. One Sprinter railway carriage travels an average of 210,000 kilometres a year. An Intercity exceeds this by an average of 275,000 kilometres. But wait for it. After about twenty years – and 5.7 million kilometres on – slow trains, local trains and Intercity trains may still not retire.

Second life

The NS gives its single and double-decker trains a second life. Every carriage is stripped from top to bottom and rebuilt – this takes 22 steps in 45 days. This is good for the environment andfor NS’ budget as a refurbished train costs half a new one. The valuable steel shell can still go four or five million kilometres. And the chassis and the engine just keep going. They have been reconditioned at an earlier stage.

24 million kilos

The NS Treinmodernisering (Refurbishment & Overhaul) is located in Haarlem. This is where the double-decker trains are given a second life. During the reconditioning process, the waste containers surprisingly remain empty. A good 86 percent of all the furniture, insulation material and electronics that are removed from a double-decker train is thoroughly cleaned up and replaced in the same or a different train. And another 11 percent of the materials are reused elsewhere. All in all, 97 percent of a scrapped train is recycled. This amounts to more than 24 million kilos of material that remains in the cycle.

There’s a use for almost everything

Most of the walls next to the stairs in the double-decker trains are made of wood. A bit of sanding and painting and they will last another twenty years. The front windows are checked and cleaned. The train restorers replace the frames and rubber with a new set. The discarded rubber goes for recycling and comes out as playground tiles. The polyester upholstery and the side walls are shredded and pulverised into flakes. These then find their way to dyke reinforcement and bridge decks. And some of the old train seats go to hip offices and canteens.


While NS is approaching perfection with its 97 percent of reuse, it is striving to be entirely circular. Even more so, they already know how to get those last few percentages. Ilse de Vos van Eekeren, Sustainable Business Manager at NS Operations says that: “There are now three train parts for which we are looking for repurposing options. These are the floors, the ceiling plates and the upholstered parts of the train seats.”

De Vos van Eekeren and her colleagues are talking to NS’ interior supplier, Gispen, about the ceiling plates. “Just like us, Gispen strives to be circular. They are looking at how they can turn the ceiling plates into desks for our office. And we will soon have a new meeting chair in our office that is made from old train seats and backrests.”

“We challenge people not to see an old train as waste, but as thousands of kilos of usable resources”

For the floors, NS is talking to the circular entrepreneurs at MAAK Haarlem. It may just be coincidence, but they are located exactly opposite NS Treinmodernisering’s workshop in Haarlem. “The floors seem to be perfect for table football tables or floor tiles given their soundproofing qualities,” says the Sustainable Business Manager. And for the upholstered parts of the train seats, still an open issue, NS will soon meet with ARN. “The upholstered parts of the train seats are difficult to recycle. They share this with car seats. So it is logical to sit with an entity like ARN and combine our strengths to come up with a good solution.”

A very useable train

That the NS is close to 100 percent circular in its trains has not come easy. Take the polyester side walls and baggage racks. The NS wanted to give them a new layer of varnish and replace them, but this was not an option for fire safety reasons. Recycle them then? Impossible. Whoever they approached, they were advised to go to the dump.

“We did not accept this. Every carriage has a thousand kilos so every train has up to 6,000 kilos of thermoset composites. You don’t want to dump them. We will be looking at possibilities with Demacq Recycling and the Windesheim University of Applied Sciences. At present, they are used to make furniture for Windesheim. And dyke and river bank reinforcement,” explains De Vos van Eekeren. She emphasises that the materials from trains are highly reusable. “They are vandal proof and very strong. They also have to be safe so they are made from the highest quality material.”

New forms

Once NS and its railway carriages are completely circular in the near future, the work will not be done. De Vos van Eekeren: “Recycling is just the beginning. We are looking at Lansink’s Ladder, and this puts recycling at the bottom. Our preference is to give the train parts a second life and, if possible, in a higher value than before. The old rubbish bins in the trains are now – after refurbishment – beautiful plant containers in NS offices.”

“Recycling is just the beginning. Our goal is to give the materials a high value second life”

In tendering for new trains, a process that takes three to five years, the NS has set clear requirements for recycling and reuse. “One of the design principles is that everything must be modular and dismountable. The floors used to be glued and could not be separated. We now have wooden floors covered with a simple removable layer of rubber so that all the materials can be reused. Apart from good recyclability and reuse, the used materials also have to be energy efficient.”

Waste is subjective

Even if a train has to be scrapped after 40 years, the NS looks for a new destination for it. Some trains go to the Spoorwegmuseum (railway museum) or are sold to national transport companies. If these do not work, NS removes the valuable parts to be reused in other trains. The train driver’s seat is almost indestructible. Other parts go to the Techniek Fabriek, NS’ train mechanics’ training centre. And many old coat hooks hang in NS offices. Other destinations include collectors of train memorabilia and the kaNScentraal charity. The very last option is circular demolition. “We challenge people not to see old trains as waste, but as usable resources. We expect to dismantle and recycle a thousand train carriages between now and 2028. This equates to about 57.6 million kilos of valuable resources.”

There is no such thing as no can do

The recurring thread in the NS success story is ‘there is no such thing as no can do’. Or as Ilse de Vos van Eekeren says, “If we are unable to reuse something, we will find a way to do it.” The train of the future will be no different. Thought is continually being given behind the scenes to the quality of the used materials. Sustainable and vandal proof as always, and as recyclable and reusable as possible. In NS’ case, this is 100 percent circular.

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