Belgium: A European Success Model for Packaging Recycling
Through technological innovation and early adoption of extended producer responsibility, Belgium has made remarkable progress in packaging waste collection and recycling. What is behind the country's success?
And the winner is: Belgium. At least with regard to the packaging recycling rate. At 79.2 percent, the country leads the way in the EU. Progress has been made in recent years, particularly in the collection and recycling of plastic packaging. To achieve this, the government and industry are relying on high-tech and innovative processes. As a result, the efficiency of waste collection and recycling has been significantly improved. New recycling plants — five in all in recent years — have advanced sorting systems and complement the well-organized collection system for household and industrial packaging. A total of 75 percent of the plastic packaging generated is thus expected to be recycled in the country by 2025.
The relatively high recycling rate of the various packaging materials in Belgium is mainly due to the extended producer responsibility agreement implemented early on in 2008. This agreement, concluded between the Belgian federal government and the regional governments, defines the responsibilities of producers for the management of packaging waste. Compliance and implementation is monitored by the Interregional Packaging Commission (IVC). It consists of representatives from the three Belgian regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital.
Recycling Rate of Plastics is Catching Up
The total amount of packaging placed on the Belgian market increased by 4.6 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, amounting to just over 1.9 million tons. Paper and cardboard account for 39 percent of the total weight of packaging waste produced in Belgium. Glass (21 percent) and plastics (19 percent) are also two large groups.
79 percent is recycled overall. For glass, the recycling rate is 97 percent, but this is mainly due to parallel imports of beverages, whose packaging is not included in the total amount of packaging placed on the market, but is still recycled. The recycling rate for metal packaging is 96 percent and for paper and cardboard 89 percent.
This means that Belgium has almost reached or exceeded the quotas it set itself. This is because the official target for material recycling of packaging waste from households and industry is 80 percent, according to the IVC. Material recovery here refers to the conversion of waste into a usable raw material, for example through recycling.
Well Organized Collection
Like Germany, Belgium has a long-established system of separate collection for packaging recycling. The recycling of industrial and household packaging is managed by two organizations. Both are part of the extended producer responsibility system, which aims to ensure that producers take full responsibility for the entire life cycle of their goods. They are accredited by and report to the Interregional Packaging Commission (IVC).
Valipac is the name of the national organization responsible for industrial packaging waste, and in 1997 it was the first in the world to deal exclusively with this waste group. It works with companies to promote a sustainable and efficient packaging economy, reduce packaging waste, manage it better and recycle it more effectively. To this end, Valipac offers a range of services, including recycling, collection and information services.
Fost Plus, on the other hand, takes care of household packaging recycling in Belgium. The organization works with local authorities, collection companies and recycling plants to ensure that packaging waste is recycled in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. Fost Plus, for example, is responsible for recycling waste from the “Blue Bag”, which was introduced in 2021.
In addition to the new recycling facilities, the organization has also created new recycling markets for this purpose, which are intended to ensure high-quality recycling in line with the circular economy. With the Blue Bag, the scope of collected materials has been extended to all plastic packaging, including hard plastics (cups, tubs and trays) and films. Sorting and recycling are to take place in Belgium as far as possible in the future.
Due to this successful record, the country takes a critical view of plans for an EU-wide packaging regulation. The Commission believes that this adjustment will lead to more harmonization, as the existing directive no longer reflects the increasing trends in packaging waste generation in the EU. However, Belgian Environment Minister Zakia Khattabi rejects this proposal and is in favor of a directive. In her opinion, a regulation would lead to an inefficient system that does not sufficiently take into account national specificities and investments and would limit the ability of leading states to act. A directive, on the other hand, would be ambitious and give member states the necessary leeway to take their own actions.
As a class leader in recycling, Belgium would hate to see its high standards watered down. Perhaps the European Union can learn from the country's experience and take better account of the different requirements in individual regions. In this way, Belgium could become a model for the circular economy across the continent.