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A model from across the Channel

Flanders in Belgium has a recycling rate of 72%. Although it is worked out slightly differently from the UK because it takes into account recycling, composting and re-use, it is still a very impressive figure. And it is possible that it is even higher now because this was the last official figure from 2008, with data for 2009 coming out in September this year.

Of the remainder, more than 20% of the residual waste goes to incineration, some is processed by MBT and a tiny proportion of waste to landfill. So how did the region get so successful?

“It is a result of years and years of consistent policy,” says Flemish public waste organisation spokesman Jan Verheyen. “Our waste management policy started in the early 1980s with legislation to control waste that was sent to landfill and replace it with capacity for incineration with energy recovery.

“Then in the 1990s, we introduced door-to-door collection in all the local authorities. Plastics, metals, paper, glass and chemicals were collected.”

Ovam was created in 1981 with the idea of managing waste management and prevention in a region containing six million people - approximately 60% of the Belgian population. The Flemish minister of the environment is responsible for waste management and Ovam works out and implements the government’s policy. It has continued to successfully increase the recycling rate of the region.

“Lots of companies don’t see waste as their problem, but waste is a loss of raw materials”

“From the start, Flanders co-operated intensively with local authorities,” says Verheyen. “Even though the Flemish government makes waste management policy and sets general guidelines, local authorities are free to set up their own schemes to meet local needs. However, the collection of household packaging is mandatory, using either separate containers or bags. Green waste is collected door-to-door in rural authorities and home composting is strongly encouraged.”

Where there is more space, such as in rural or semi-rural areas, local authorities tend to provide bins for residents that are fitted with a chip and residents then pay as they throw. In cities, bags are used and residents pay for bags to put their waste and recycling in. The purchase price of the bag includes the fee for collecting it. Bags are much more expensive for residual waste than for recycling, and green waste collection bags are a bit more expensive than the bags for separate dry recyclables to encourage home composting.

Verheyen says: “We apply the principle that the polluter pays. It has been a very important factor. But we also have co-operation agreements in place, such as take-back agreements, so that companies that market a product are responsible for the collection and processing of it. So these companies have an obligation to take back bottles or cans, for example, and they can either pay a private company or the local authority to do it for them. It is also possible for them to do it themselves.

“It is a very efficient way of doing it because 85% to 90% of packaging is recycled.”

He adds that another important element in boosting recycling rates has been a landfill ban on many materials, which has encouraged a recycling culture. There has also been clear communications that emphasise the need to recycle, as well as the need to recycle effectively, to maintain quality of materials.

Flanders has developed a strong community culture around recycling, and residents feel it is something very important to do. Recycling yards - the equivalent of civic amenity sites in the UK - are even places where people will meet friends while recycling and browsing the shops selling reusable goods. But the focus is now increasingly on waste prevention rather than recycling.

“We’ve had mixed results,” says Verheyen. “Pay-as-you-throw encourages waste prevention anyway. But it isn’t always easy in a consumer society. In the past few years or so, we have had economic growth averaging about 2% per year. Our households currently create about 555kg of household waste, which is about the same as 10 years ago. So we have removed the link between economic growth and waste growth.”

The Flanders government has tried a variety of tactics including campaigns for waste-free shopping, school campaigns and agreements with supermarkets on reducing packaging and plastic bags.

When it comes to commercial and industrial waste, Flanders is putting more focus into that too. “We have a goal to encourage companies and industry to recycle more,” adds Verheyen. “It is not at the same level as households at present. But we want companies to apply eco-design in their products and work on the cradle-to cradle philosophy. Lots of companies don’t see waste as their problem, but waste is a loss of raw materials.

“We have eco-efficiency schemes for SMEs where they get an environmental audit on the waste they create and energy and water they use. But we also help them to produce in a more environmentally friendly way and show the economic benefits of doing so.”

The region is also planning on rewriting the waste decree that created Ovam in 1981. Verheyen explains: “We now have a very different situation from 30 years ago. Waste can be a source of new products or secondarymaterials. We very much want to follow the cradle-to-cradle philosophy set out by William McDonough and Michael Braungart that means products have an ecological, social and economic value.”

Clearly, Flanders has achieved a lot in taking its recycling rate to high levels, and there is much that can be a model for other countries. Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead visited Flanders in April this year, describing it as “an excellent example”, especially as the populations of the two are similar. And it is clear that Scotland’s zero-waste policy has been informed by much that was learned in Flanders.

While pay-as-you-throw has been put on the back burner in England by the coalition Government, ideas such as landfill bans, increasing energy from waste with combined heat and power, and engaging the local community are still being considered. There is much that can be learned from a short hop across the Channel.

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