Circular operations

For NS, circular operations mean minimising the use of primary raw materials, maximising the use of our own materials and not creating any waste. NS aspires to achieve full circularity in terms of procurement, maximum reuse of materials and zero waste in offices and workshops and from trains. In this way, we contribute to the climate agreement and the European Green Deal as well as to SDG 12 and SDG 13. Together with ProRail and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, NS is also working to achieve the Waste-Free Stations 2040 ambition.


Inflow versus outflow

By inflow, we mean all physical resources entering our company. This includes new trains and spare parts, maintenance supplies, company clothing, IT hardware and so on. Inflow is circular if it does not contribute to resource depletion, for example because it has been used before (reused or recycled) or because it is replenished (from a sustainably managed biological source).

By outflow, we mean our physical assets leaving our company and the waste thrown away by passengers on trains and at our stations. Outflow is linear if the materials are landfilled or incinerated and circular if the materials are not lost but reused. This only works if it is technically possible to reuse, convert, recycle or compost those materials and if there is a party that is able and willing to do so.

For definitions of inflow and outflow we align with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Circular Transition Indicators (CTI) framework.

Limiting the use of raw materials

Applying circularity principles in design and procurement will enable us to become smarter in the use of materials and to reduce the use of raw materials. We have laid down our circular procurement principles in our Socially Responsible Commissioning and Procurement policy. In high-impact tendering procedures, we include circularity as a criterion in the selection and award phase. In 2023, this included tenders for wheels, magnetic brakes and cabling. In connection with the purchase of New Generation Double-Decker (DDNG) trains, we devoted attention specifically to reducing the weight of the trains so that less material is needed to build them and less energy is needed to run them. In addition, the manufacturer shares a materials passport of the proposed design. This allows us to jointly select circular materials that do not contribute to resource depletion and can be dismantled and recycled after the train’s lifetime. By requiring a materials passport and high recyclability rates, NS is among the leaders in the European railway sector.

Inflow measurement

To effectively manage and promote the circular use of materials, NS applies a permanent ‘inflow measurement’ method that allows us to analyse and record the composition of the materials we procure. In 2023, this covered a total of 8,420 tonnes (2022: 7,381 tonnes), or 46% of all materials we purchased (2022: 43%). This increase is due to an expansion of the number of materials we measure. In inflow measurement, 34% was circular (2022: 78%). This decrease is largely due to the completion of a major construction project for a new train shed in Haarlem. This project involved the re-use of many materials, leading to a higher percentage in 2022.

We have incorporated inflow measurement into our procurement processes and templates, which are available to all suppliers. In 2023, we continued our efforts to automate inflow measurement. With the help of our suppliers, we enrich the material data of coded train-related items, such as spare parts. We also use artificial intelligence to digitise technical drawings. In addition, it remains important to educate and train the NS employees involved in procurement processes, and to collaborate with our suppliers. This allows us to identify opportunities and challenge the market to become more circular.

Circular offerings for passengers

While reducing the use of primary resources, we are developing circular offerings for passengers in our stations. We are examining whether single-use packaging is really necessary. For example, we only offer coffee cups with a lid if passengers specifically ask for one. We are making packaging more sustainable by including renewable and recycled materials. In 2023, we replaced plastic-coated bread sheets with paper and started the transition from bags with a plastic window to paper bags. However, we are reaching the limits of what is possible: a great deal of plastic has already been phased out or cannot be replaced. For paper laminates, for instance, in many cases the market does not yet offer good alternatives that are heat-resistant and food-safe. We encourage our suppliers to keep innovating and we are monitoring the market closely. In addition, NS is pushing for other strategies, such as Bring Your Own (BYO).

Reusable cups

In 2023, we promoted the use of reusable cups. For this purpose, we repeated the 2022 ‘The Way To Go’ campaign in the spring of 2023, in cooperation with almost all tenants at the major stations. This campaign won the 2023 Green Giraffe award for the highest-impact marketing event. Since 1 July, when the statutory SUP (Single-Use-Plastics) surcharge on disposable packaging was introduced, NS Retail has charged over €500,000 for plastic packaging. This includes €0.10 for a cup, €0.35 for meal packs and €0.05 for pre-packed items.

In 2023, this resulted in a reduction of 442,884 disposable cups at our own Kiosk, Julia’s and Station Living Room retail outlets. The surcharge will benefit sustainability initiatives for NS Retail. One example is a loan system to replace disposable cups for hot drinks with a deposit system for cups. This system will be piloted in Rotterdam in early 2024. In addition, NS switched from plastic lids to a more sustainable variant in late 2023. As the new lid contains much less plastic, it contributes to a substantial reduction of plastic in the chain.

Optimum use of rolling stock

We take good care of our rolling stock by focusing on effective maintenance and timely repairs so as to extend its service life. For instance, we are upgrading our 20-year-old double-decker trains for another 20 years of service. In 2023, we upgraded 16 VIRM2/3-type double-deckers with 96 coaches. In the process, 99% of these trains get a second life. We upgrade 86% of the 20-year-old train components internally and reintegrate them in our trains for another 20 years of service. 13% of all materials get a second life elsewhere.
In our repair and maintenance work, we aim to extend the life of all train components. For instance, 11% of all train components qualify as ‘reuse components’. This means that in the event of a malfunction, these components are repaired or overhauled rather than thrown away. This helps prevent the need to buy new products and the accumulation of waste.

Outflow of trains

When a train series is approaching the end of its service life, we identify any components of which we can extend the life by reusing them in another series. There was no outflow of trains in 2023. We did prepare for the outflow of our ICM-type trains in 2024 by sharing a ‘harvest book’ with our partners that allowed them to see which train components NS will offer for reuse. Interested parties could see the components in real life on a viewing day on the train.

There is no such thing as waste

If we have no further use for products and cannot reuse them, we still want to keep them in the cycle as high-value materials. We first try to find a new destination for the product as a whole. If that proves impossible, we find a new destination for the individual components. If the components cannot be reused, we separate them for recycling purposes as effectively as possible. In 2023, we were able to repurpose 3,322 tonnes of materials within and outside our organisation. For example, old upholstery from our trains is turned into shoes, inner tyres of public transport bicycles are used to make travel bags, and departure time displays are transformed into bird boxes. In 2023, we opened the seventh NS Upcycle Shop at Utrecht Central Station, where we sold collectors’ items from trains and NS Upcycle products. 

Through four auctions, we found new uses for old or surplus NS materials in 2023. In total, hundreds of items (and 50.9 tonnes of materials) found a new purpose in this way. In 2023, the KaNScentraal Foundation sold 3.6 tonnes of collectors’ items from our trains to raise funds for disadvantaged children.

Collection of bottles and cans

In 2023, we increased the number of deposit machines at the 5 largest stations to 13. Since April, these machines also accept deposit cans. The number of deposit bottles and cans returned in 2023 was 782,540. Our ambition was to expand the number of stations with a deposit return machine from 5 to a total of 22 by the end of 2023. However, this expansion was postponed due to the limited use of these machines. We think it is important to first find out why the collection of deposit items at our stations is making so little progress. We will use the results of this study to identify what action is needed.

Food waste

All AH to Go outlets are partnering with Too Good To Go to prevent food waste. Too Good To Go is a service that uses an app to connect customers with restaurants and shops that have surplus unsold food. Our Kiosk and Station Living Room outlets joined the scheme in September 2023.

Outflow results

In 2023, we disposed of 27,278 tonnes of materials (2022: 24,540 tonnes). 67.3% of this volume was recycled or reused. Hazardous waste made up 32% of the total outflow. This is related to the disposal of contaminated soil from the demolition of a building in Haarlem.
To increase the circular outflow percentage, we have made the collection points smarter so as to separate more material flows. We track the separation rate for each site using dashboards.

We have taken several measures at the stations to increase circular outflow. For instance, at the largest stations we facilitate and encourage in-store separation at source. In 2023, we separated 35% of all station waste. This puts us on track towards our ambition of 100% waste-free stations by 2040. For this, we rely in part on post-separation of residual flows, of which we achieved 12.3% in 2023. We are committed to working with our waste processor to increase the outflow rate of post-separation.
To reduce hazardous waste, we launched a study in 2023 looking at the impact of hazardous waste in the biggest flows and whether we can avoid it. We expect the results of this study in 2024.

Promoting the sharing and worldwide upscaling of knowledge

We have learnt lessons from the circular modernisation and dismantling of our trains and translated these lessons into specifications for the acquisition of new trains. We applied these lessons in the call for tenders for DDNG trains. To bring about real change in the market, however, it is important to ensure that other railway businesses also know and apply these lessons. For that reason, we are scaling up these specifications at the European level through Eurospec. This is a collaboration between six European railway companies (NS, DB, SNCF, ÖBB, SBB and RDG) that aims to align needs and specifications in order to reduce costs throughout train lifecycles, reduce delivery times and accelerate innovation. In early 2023, these circular specifications were published for the first time, including a standardised template for a ‘materials passport’.

Print page