Belgium takes out the trash

  
Bin bags on a street. Brussels, 2012. [Emiliano/Flickr].

SPECIAL REPORT / Belgium’s waste disposal system - in which residents leave coloured bin bags in the streets for collection - has drawn criticism for being unsightly. But critics may not be aware that the country is considered relative disposal “paradise” amongst experts.

With Europeans throwing away 3 billion tonnes of waste every year, and the world population set to rise, mitigating the problem has become a priority at the EU level.

“We are going to be hit by a tsunami of waste if all of those additional people coming to this planet - essentially in the developing world - start consuming like we do in Europe,” said Karl Falkenberg, the head the European Commission’s environment directorate.

A number of European countries are trying to swim against the tide, virtually phasing out landfilling, and rapidly increasingly their levels of recycling. According to the Commission, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Sweden and Belgium are the “most advanced” EU countries, dumping less than 3% of municipal waste, sticking most closely to the targets set in the 2008 Waste Framework Directive, which calls for the recycling of at least 50% of household refuse across the Union, by 2020.

Behavioural change

As with any successful initiative, it is people that make it work. Experts credit “behavioural changes” for the success of these countries' waste management strategies. To Olivier de Clercq, a policy officer for waste management and recycling in the Commission’s environment directorate, financial incentives are the key.

“In Belgium, the less you sort, the more you pay,” he told EurActiv, at a conference at the Brussels Press Club last week, referring to the northern European country’s public-private pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) schemes.

In Belgium, residents are required to distribute their waste between three and four differently coloured bags - one for general refuse, for the dump, one for plastics, one for cardboard and another for 'garden waste'. The general bag costs the most. In the Flanders region, residents can pay more than €2 per bag of waste intended for the dump, up to five times more than they pay for bin bags sorted for recyclable waste.

“Financial incentives are changing behaviour,” de Clercq said.

Residents can also be given fines if they do not sort their refuse properly, though most infringements result in a warning from the local municipality. Belgium now recycles or composts 57% of it municipal waste, according to data released yesterday (25 March) by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office.

The statistics are similar in Germany and Austria, at 65% and 62%, respectively. They also work according to PAYT, however using a system in which citizens pay a charge based on the weight of their waste.

Communication is key

There is also another side to the waste debate: the need for communication campaigns. The European Commission has launched its own campaign, ‘Generation Awake’, which features animated short-films aimed at informing citizens and inspiring them to waste less and recycle more. 'Generation Awake' has been one of the Commission’s most successful campaigns, with one of the videos being watched over 2 million times.

The Commission’s environment directorate has also drawn on celebrity pulling power, inviting British actor Jeremy Irons to the launch of its public consultation on plastic waste.

Irons presented, in tandem, his documentary on waste, ‘Trashed’, and urged the public to shoulder some of the responsibility for dealing with the blight.

Experts at the Brussels conference echoed the call for grassroots action. “We need to [inform] consumers of why they’re recycling, (and) how to recycle”, said Vanya Veras, the secretary general of Municipal Waste Europe. “We need to close that communication loop”.

Extended Producer Responsibility

However, tackling the waste challenge goes beyond household and municipal organisation, with policymakers etching out an important role for industry, or ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) schemes, in particular.

Under EPR, producers are responsible for the products they put on the market, whether a drink container or a car tire, for their entire life cycle. Companies therefore pay for some of the costs associated with reprocessing their product.

To Stéphane Arditi, from the European Environmental Bureau, a green campaign group, offering incentives for good environmental practices could work well with the private sector. “Companies which produce packaging that’s better for re-use or recycling should pay less,” he said.

The Commission’s Falkenberg supports a similar approach, advocating EPR schemes that provide an incentive for producers to take environmental considerations into account throughout a product’s lifecycle.

Businesses are also aware that packaging plays an important role in how they are perceived by consumers. Hans van Bochove, the vice-president of public affairs for Coca-Cola, said, “Packaging for us is important from a reputation point of view”.

The European Commission is set to publish in May a communication on the so-called circular economy as part of the ongoing review of waste legislation. Experts hope that EU-level action on waste can bring about the sea-change needed to avert the waste “tsunami”.

According yesterday’s Eurostat release, EU countries have significantly increased the share of municipal waste they have recycled or composted, from 18% in 1995 to 42% in 2012.

Timeline: 
  • May 2014: European Commission expected to publish communication on the circular economy as part of waste review
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