Flanders: a society built on recycling

With its popular recycling parks, fashionable reuse shops and tiny landfill rates for household waste, Flanders in Belgium looks like an unqualified waste management success story. David Gilliver investigates

Flanders does not have any natural resources, so it is in its ecological and economic interests to be a recycling society, says Jan Verheyen of the region’s waste management policy-making body, OVAM. And a recycling society they certainly are, with the landfill rate for household waste standing at just 1%.

Waste management in Belgium is a regional issue, and effective cooperation between individual local authorities – whose responsibility it is to collect household waste – and the Flemish level has been a key factor in the region’s success, says Verheyen.

Flanders’ drive towards achieving its impressive results began in the early 1980s, when landfill rates for household waste stood at around 50%. The first priority was to boost incineration capacity and shut down illegal and environmentally-unsound landfills, and OVAM still makes sure that landfill is as expensive, and banned for as many items, as possible.

Household collections for paper and cardboard, glass, packaging waste and garden waste were introduced in stages from the early 1990s, and although residents are charged for some of these, perhaps surprisingly there has never been any real resistance.

This is because OVAM encourages local authorities to introduce “differentiated systems” of payment, says Verheyen, which means that collections for non-recyclable residual household waste are the most expensive for residents, while garden waste is less expensive, although people still have to pay. Hazardous waste, household packaging waste and waste from electronic appliances is collected free. “Basically, the better you recycle, the less you pay,” he says.

Another important factor is that there are “take-back” obligations for industry on some items, he stresses. “It’s the producer’s responsibility to take back my old television set, for example, and for that I pay a small recycling fee when I buy a new TV.”

Local authorities also have a degree of autonomy to adapt the Flemish rules to local needs. Rural and urban areas can set different charges and collection frequencies for green waste, for instance, although waste tariffs will usually be the same in neighbouring areas to avoid “waste tourism”.

As well as door-to-door collections there are large subterranean containers for paper, bottles and food waste, which allow trucks to pick up the equivalent weight of 120 waste sacks in a single collection.

Local authorities have established popular recycling parks where people can bring things such as garden waste, electrical appliances, oil or tyres. Another success has been the large network of subsidised local “reuse” shops, which accept anything from furniture and clothes to electrical goods and toys, and arrange free collection for larger items. Similar initiatives have never proved popular in the UK, so what is the secret?

“They’re organised on an inter-municipal level and they have to be economically viable, so there isn’t a reuse shop in every village or town,” he says. “There’s always been a strong link with social employment, which has been one factor of their success, and in recent years there’s also been a level of hype. It’s become trendy to use stuff from the shops, and we’ve seen their popularity grow year after year.”

The whole thing looks impressive to British eyes, and a crucial element is effective, and sustained, communication and information campaigns. “You can’t just run a campaign once or twice, and then nothing – it’s very important to continue those efforts, and very important to involve local authorities. They can adapt your campaigns to a local level.”

These days, industrial waste is more of a priority than household waste, he says. While around 72% of household waste is recycled and 27% incinerated, rates of recycling and reuse for industrial waste stand at around 63%.

“But the total amount of industrial waste is much higher, so our main priority is to stimulate Flemish industries and companies to improve their eco-efficiency – to introduce eco-design in their products and processes and to apply cradle-to-cradle principles.”

Friends of the Earth resource use campaigner, Julian Kirby, believes that people in the UK are just as keen to recycle, compost and reuse as the Belgians. But, with political differences even within the same parties on issues such as weekly bin collections, compounded by the localism agenda and other competing ideologies, does the political will exist to achieve something similar here?

“England’s waste policy is incoherent and piecemeal, and lacking in overall ambition and clarity of direction, so at the national government level I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t the political will, yet, to achieve anything remotely approaching the ambition of Flanders,” he says.

“That said, there is considerable appetite across all sections of the economy for much more ambition on waste, and I’ve also heard directly from many local councillors that they’re hungry for a national government lead on pushing waste policy forward. So the political will is there – everywhere but at the national government level.”

David Gilliver is a freelance journalist

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