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Waste management in Belgium: what can China learn from it?

It's known that Shanghai's first regulation on domestic waste management will take effect on July 1 after being approved at the annual session of the municipal people's congress on Jan 31.

According to the requirements of the “Implementation Plan for the Domestic Waste Classification System” issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, by the end of the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan”, the mandatory classification of domestic waste must be implemented within the urban area of ​​Shanghai.

The successful experience of Belgium may provide a certain reference for Shanghai. Belgium is a small European country, but it has a complete proven system in garbage classification. Belgians are also familiar with the classification of domestic garbage, and the concept of environmental protection is deeply rooted in the hearts of the people.

Belgium: European Waste Champion

In 2013 Belgium showed the world how to be the best performing country in waste management. The Belgians managed to recycle 197kg per person in that year.

Belgium has since then played an important role in the field of waste legislation and policy as well as setting the right example. This is no different today as the amount of waste produced hasn’t increased since 2000. To understand how that’s possible, we need look at Belgium’s first waste decree in the 1980’s, here the Belgians set goals for composting, waste separation and the reduction of household waste. In the early 1990’s a national compost organization was established. But due to the compost not being of good quality because of lack of waste separation, the Belgians decided to improve the waste separation by introducing separate collection. This has been an important step as it has helped to reduce Belgium’s CO2 emissions by 480.000 tonnes. In 1998 it became legally prohibited to incinerate recyclables as well as sending unsorted, recyclable and pharmaceutical waste to the average landfill.

In 2017 Fost Plus reported to have recycled 698.000 tonnes of household waste, a rate of 89.1% compared to 87.4% in 2016 setting an European record again. Fost plus is the organization responsible for promoting, coordinating and financing the collecting, sorting and recycling of household packaging waste in Belgium.

 

Especially the recycling rate for PET has increased in recent years from 76.9% to 87.7% in 2017. And even though China made the decision to stop importing certain types of waste, the impact for Belgium was very limited. 99% Of household packaging waste is treated in Belgium or in a neighboring country.

But Belgium is still not fully satisfied as they are still innovating to maintain it’s 1st place position in recycling, they are now trying to implement a new strategy based on more sorting outside of the home, public cleanliness among other goals. Belgium is also aiming for a 64% recycling rate for plastic packaging, far above the EU target of 55% by 2030;
 

To tell the story of the European recycling champion we need to start by explaining their secret. Little to no household waste in Belgium remains unsorted. This is due to the efficient house waste collecting practices that make it very easy to sort your waste at home.

Belgium's Secret of Waste Managment

In Belgium, each region and commune has a different system of picking up waste, but household waste is picked up every once in a week. Every house is given a ‘waste collection calendar’ to consult when taking out the trash. The big secret behind their model recycling is definitely the garbage bags in different colors. There are white, blue, green, red/pink bags as well as glass containers. Every household is responsible for buying their own bags, but once you have the necessary colors recycling apparently becomes a piece of cake.

The household waste will then be picked up accordingly to the ‘waste collection calendar’. Different color bags sometimes on a other day, this way the collection process can be optimize and every bag can be separated manually even before entering the separation machines.

Each commune also has a ‘container park’, a destination for chemical waste like frying oil, toxic products, thermometers,…

Belgium understood from the beginning that recycling starts with sorting as soon as possible in the collection process. Which we can see in the separate waste collection for PMD, GFT, paper and cartons that has been implemented for years now. It’s proven that Belgians are also very willing to contribute to this system starting from their own home.

The Belgian government also strengthens the public's awareness of recycling by for example, if there is no household that is implemented according to the garbage classification regulations, the garbage collection union will put a warning sign on the garbage bag and ask for reclassification. Those who do not change the education will face a fine ranging from 60 euros to 600 euros. If residents pile up or dump garbage at irregular times, they also face fines.

 

In order to increase public understanding of waste sorting, Belgium also has a special systematic waste sorting education course. In Brussels the capital region, there are separate courses for ordinary residents and social organizations, schools and front-line cleaners. Citizens, especially those who have recently moved to Brussels, can visit the garbage disposal factory for free. Of course, it is more important to start informing the concept of garbage classification to children. All schools are invited to participate in a series of activities related to waste sorting, which enhances the sensitivity of students and understands the importance of environmental protection. Even for students of different grades, there are different courses to maximize the effect to their understanding.

Besides strengthening the education, it is also necessary to better the collection service as well. In the capital region of Belgium, the sanitation department has launched a mobile app to help the citizens check the weekly garbage collection time, the distribution of garbage collection bin around their residence, and to remind citizens at a fixed time when they need to have packed their garbage before collection.

Household waste management

As we mentioned in Belgium, daily garbage is distinguished by the color of the garbage bag. Garbage bags of different colors can be purchased in the supermarket. The yellow bag is used to load paper products, including old newspapers, advertising materials, and used cardboard boxes. It should be neatly arranged and stacked into garbage bags; blue bags are used to collect plastic products, resin materials, milk boxes, beverage bottles and cans are all blue garbage. The box containing milk or juice also requires four corners to be unfolded and flattened before being thrown in; the green bag is used to fill the grass cut in the home garden, and the trimmed branches gardening garbage such as fallen leaves; white garbage bags are used to store other garbage that cannot be recycled, mainly kitchen waste. In addition, for glass products, there are colored glass products and colorless glass products, each having a recycling box. As for used batteries, expired drugs, etc., there are also special recycling bins that cannot be mixed with other garbage.

Battery Recycling

Belgium is also a role model when it comes to collecting and recycling batteries. Thanks to the Belgian Bebat system it’s proven that 60% of the Belgians bring their used batteries to the Bebat collecting point on a regular basis.

The Bebat system is a PRO (Producer Responsibility Organization) that implements collecting used batteries as it can be very damaging fort the environment to dump them in the regular landfill. Bebat gives Belgians the possibility to stock their used batteries in a Bebat bag and hand them in to them at one of their 24.000 collecting points in Belgium.

The collecting points include:

  • Your neighbourhood store that sells batteries is obligated to accept the used batteries for free and deliver them to Bebat. 17%
  • Recycling parks 24%
  • Schools 14%
  • Dismantling centers 9%
  • Companies 36%

By recycling batteries you are not only keeping them out of our environment and preventing them to damage nature, the dismantling centers can also recover a lot of reusable materials such as water, carbon, plastics and various metals.

 

Flanders tries to implement the EU EPR legislation more and more by introducing the acceptance duty, the producer has the obligation to take back waste batteries from consumers. The Flemish collection target is 45% for portable batteries, and the recycling target is 65% for lead, 75% for nickel-cadmium and 50% other batteries. And also by improving the cooperation between municipalities for battery collection.

Plastic waste management

Each year there’s around 183.000 tonnes of household packaging waste on the Belgian market, of which 157.000 gets recycled in one of the country’s nine recycling plants. Plastics, metal and carboard (PMC) gets collected every week from the Belgians doorstep in blue bags.

Here we’re going to discuss the recycling process of the most part of the PMC collection; plastic bottles and flasks in 3 steps:

  1. After collection from each Belgian doorstep in blue bags, the plastic bottles get separated automatically or sometimes still manually.
  2. Each bottle gets rinsed and grinded to grains or flakes.
  3. Using different methods the grains and flakes get melted and transformed into material to make new products.

Transparent PET bottles get recycled into:

  • New bottles
  • Little boxes for packaging of fruit and vegetables
  • Textile fibers
  • Carpets, stuffing for mattresses, jackets and sleeping bags.

Colored bottles made of HDPE get recycled into:

  • Racks, baskets, boxes
  • New water bottles
  • Tubes and garden equipment such as a watering cans

Recycling PET and HDPE bottles has big economical and ecological advantages. There a reduction of energy when producing the new plastics, and as reduction of raw materials needed such as petroleum.

Industrial Recycling

In Flanders, around 20 million tonnes of primary industrial waste is produced per year, of which nearly one third is construction and demolition waste. 15% Of this industrial waste is landfills or incinerated, but Belgium recycles, composes, reuses or conditions for further treatment the remaining 85%.

But Belgium is not only a leader in their household waste management practices, they’re also doing good work in industrial recycling. A lot of Belgian entrepreneurs have seen the opportunities in cleantech and now Belgium is home to a great range of cleantech companies with innovative ideas on how to recycle not only household waste, but industrial waste as well.

Case Belgian biomass energy plants

VYNCKE N.V. is a Belgian international family business with its roots in Flanders active in Brazil, US, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, India, Malaysia, Thailand and China. VYNCKE’s main activities is to design and build green and clean energy plants that burn biomass or solid recovered fuel to produce thermal energy and electrical power. The energy comes individually or in any combination of hot water, steam, thermal oil and hot gas … with or without electrical power generation. They turned shredding and dehydrating solid waste such as biodegradable food and kitchen, green and paper waste into a solution for the wood, food and agri industry and promote companies to invest in renewable energy.

VYNCKE now uses their green solutions to encourage industrial companies all over the world to think about their responsibility of their own industrial waste. Such as many Belgians have seen the profit a clean waste stream can bring and have resorted to invest in specialized businesses that convert waste to new products or raw materials.

Benefits of Waste Management

In Belgium companies are now obligated to contribute to the separated waste collecting and they are encouraging everyone to not only be a role model recycler at home but also at work. You could be wondering if it’s worth the investment, besides being obligated by the government there are actually a lot of benefits a company can gain from optimizing their waste management.

Reduce operation cost:

As you will recycle and separate more production waste, you will be able to reduce the size of your waste containers. This also means you could reduce the frequency of waste pickups and it all leading to cost savings.

Enhance your business reputation:

Consumers respond positively when they see businesses are operating in a green ecological way. Recycling shows that your business is willing to better the environment and responsible for its waste.

Legal requirements:

Your country may have or will have some legal benefits for companies who are helping the environment.

Workplace safety:

Storing and disposing your rubbish in the wrong place can be harmful to employees or customers. If you work with sharp objects, dangerous fumes and chemicals, you will need special procedures for how you dispose of them.

Case Study: Cosmetics Manufacturer

A Western manufacturer of cosmetic skin care products decided to set a goal to expand it’s existing recycling program and implement new processes for staff so they can actively engage in recycling within the manufacturing offices. First, the company sought advice from selected recycling providers in order to determine the best plan of action. The company trained it’s managers related to the new strategy, before they had to communicate to their staff with clear instructions on how staff can participate in the new recycling initiatives. The staff got used to approach management to ask what more can be done with a certain material, rather than simply filling a waste bin.

Successes of the company include:

Active engagement of staff in finding a solution to waste because of the preparing training.

The company has also found how to recycle e-waste, batteries, polystyrene, printer cartridges,… As well as continuing its cardboard, paper and soft plastic recycling.

The establishment of recycling bins in the canteen, allowing staff to recycle as they do at home.

The project has been an overall success and the company has seen some profitable benefits from changing their strategy to greener initiatives.

Where to start?

  • Get help from an experienced waste management solution provider. Belgium offers a lot of ideas companies could get inspired from, as well as waste management consultants to guide you and your employees to greener goals.
  • Be willing to invest. As mentioned earlier the benefits are worth the investment in the longer run.
  • Set an example. Guide your employees and set the right example for them, this way implementing new initiatives will be well received.
  • Be patient. Helping your business be environmental friendly does not happen overnight, have patience and set clear goals.

The article is the transcript of the Generate Bvba's presentation on the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai's seminar on Zero Plastic Campaign seminar on June 3rd 2019

Generate Bvba is a Belgium and China registered business development and technology transfer service company.

Authors: Liang Sun, Laura Bourdakis

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