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Belgium Hosts Europe's Best Recycling and Prevention Program

By 3p Contributor

By Cecilia Allen and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives

The Flemish region of Belgium boasts the highest waste diversion rate in Europe. Almost three-fourths of the residential waste produced in the region is reused, recycled, or composted. Since the first Waste Decree was approved in Flanders in 1981, regional goals (for overall residential waste generation, separate collection, and residual waste after source separation and home composting) have been met and then exceeded, allowing more ambitious goals to be set in subsequent waste plans that are developed every four to five years. With these successes, the emphasis of waste management policies transitioned from disposal to source separation and recycling, and finally to waste prevention. Per capita waste generation in Flanders has held steady since 2000, showing a rare example of economic growth without increased waste generation.

The first plan for vegetable, fruit, and garden (VFG) waste, developed between 1991 and 1995, led to the creation of the non-profit Flemish compost organization, VLACO. VLACO encourages organic waste prevention, promotes composting at all levels, certifies compost, and operates as a reference and assistance entity on organic waste materials.

Organic materials are treated through composting and anaerobic digestion. In the beginning, there was one centralized compost plant that received mixed residential waste, but the compost quality was so bad that source separation was made a requirement in the regional plans for organic materials. The second plan for organic materials required separate collection of green waste (produced in public parks and areas as a result of pruning) or VFG waste, and advocated home composting. Subsequent organic materials plans have focused on promoting further home composting and cycle gardening, and encouraging businesses to compost.

By 2010, 35 compost plants in Flanders (8 for VFG waste and 27 for green waste) and 29 anaerobic digestion plants were processing organic residential waste together with manure and agricultural waste. Approximately 4,900 tons of organic materials were composted or treated through anaerobic digestion every day. VLACO estimated the energy savings and reduction in CO2 emissions resulting from compost production, compared to a scenario in which the organics were treated through incineration with energy recovery: in 2007, 480,000 fewer tons of CO2 were emitted due to separate collection and composting of 833,000 tons of organic materials.

The Flemish government mandates source separated collection throughout the region. In order to encourage improvements in separation, it also sets targets for per capita residential waste production, home composting, and maximum residuals, which must be met by all municipalities in the region.

In 1998, landfilling of unsorted waste, separated waste suitable for recovery, combustible waste, and all pharmaceuticals was banned, and incineration of separated recyclables and unsorted waste was also prohibited.In addition to incinerator and landfill restrictions, financial mechanisms are used to discourage burying and burning. There is an environmental tax for residual waste treatment that ranges from $9 per ton for incineration to $95 per ton for landfilling. In 2009, the revenues from these levies totaled $36 million.

One of Flanders’ central strategies to prevent waste goes to the root of the waste problem: the very design of products. To address this, the agency has created a set of tools to promote clean production and sustainable design. These include:

“ECOLIZER” – a tool for designers to estimate the environmental impact of products. It includes a set of indicators relating to materials, processing, transport, energy, and waste treatment, allowing designers to identify opportunities to reduce those impacts by changing the design.

Eco-efficiency assessment – a program to evaluate the efficiency of small and medium companies. It identifies points of intervention for reducing waste, improving energy and water efficiency, increasing recycling, and so on. The test is free of charge.

Inspirational online database – a collection of case studies of businesses that have implemented clean production and eco-design methods.

In 2008, $1.19 million in subsidies were given to reuse and recycling centers. In 2009, Flanders had over 110 second-hand shops employing a total of 3,861 employees and serving over 3.6 million paying customers. The government also organizes “Ecodesign awards” for students and professionals as a way to encourage innovations in waste prevention. The prizes range between $508 and $5,080.

Flemish waste legislation makes it mandatory for producers, importers, and retailers of certain items to take back waste products and meet collection and recovery targets. These obligations apply to batteries and accumulators, vehicles, printed matter, tires, electrical and electronic equipment, lubricating and industrial oils, lighting equipment, animal and vegetable fats and oils, and medicines. People can return broken or obsolete products to retailers free of charge. Producers are then responsible for management and treatment of the products according to specific requirements that include recovery targets. By law, new construction projects that generate over 1,000 m3 of debris must present a “deconstruction” plan and waste inventory and are responsible for recycling this waste. According to OVAM, 90 percent of construction and demolition waste—11 million tons—was recycled in 2010.

Waste Prevention Strategies Directed at Households and Individuals

Pay As You Throw (PAYT). The hallmark of this significant waste prevention strategy is the application of graduated taxes to different types of waste. Most expensive is the collection of residual waste, followed by the collection of organic materials, with the lowest taxes applied to plastic bottles, metal packaging, and drink cartons. Collection of paper and cardboard, glass bottles, and textiles is free. Tax on bulky waste varies depending on the quantity.

Home composting. Successful approaches to promote composting have included annual charges for the collection of organic materials ($51 for a 120 liter bin), educating citizens about home composting through communication campaigns, promoting “cycle gardening” to reuse yard waste, encouraging composting at schools, and composting demonstrations at community compost plants. An estimated 100,000 tons of organic materials were kept out of the collection and management system in 2008, thanks to home composting. In densely populated areas, the government encourages community compost plants, where citizens can take their organic materials. These facilities usually use compost bins, and so do not take up much space. By 2010, approximately 34 percent of the Flemish population—almost two million people—was composting at home.

Green event assessment and guide. Online tools are available for organizers to calculate the ecological footprint of their events and to prevent waste during events. The agency also maintains an online list of places that lend reusable tableware for events and parties. Additional waste prevention campaigns for citizens include promoting the use of tap water instead of bottled, encouraging bulk purchasing, discouraging the use of packaging and disposable bags, and providing “Please No Publicity” stickers distributed to citizens to reduce junk mail.

Regulating Products That Enter the Market

Although waste management is a local and regional responsibility, the Belgian federal government sets the standards for products that enter the market and eventually become waste. These policies include an Eco-tax Act for items like beverage containers, some packaging, and disposable cameras and batteries; a federal act that discourages producers from manufacturing items that increase waste problems or pose health or pollution risks; the adoption of standard labels for products meeting certain environmental and social criteria; and the publication of a green procurement guide.

Throughout Belgium, packaging is the producer’s responsibility. Nearly all the companies that produce household packaging are grouped in a single organization known as FOST Plus. Each participating company pays a fee based on the type and amount of packaging they are responsible for introducing into the market. The organization funds the public collection, sorting, and recycling of these materials. According to FOST Plus, the recycling rate for household packaging in Belgium has increased from 28 percent in 1995 to 91.5 percent in 2010.

Flanders accounts for 60 percent of the total household packaging recycled in the country (415,763 tons in 2010). FOST Plus estimates that compared to incineration, recycling prevented the emission of 860,000 tons of CO2. A 2006 study estimated that the total cost per inhabitant for the packaging management system in Belgium, accounting for income from recycling sales, was $7.34 per year.

By dividing responsibility appropriately between municipal, regional, and national governments, Flanders has successfully implemented a comprehensive strategy for waste prevention, recycling, and composting. The results speak for themselves: stable waste generation and the highest diversion rate in Europe.

Check out GAIA’s website here, download the full Zero Waste report here, and follow GAIA on Facebook and Twitter.

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[Image credit: City of York Council UK, Flickr]

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