Belgium’s plastic packaging recycling is overrated

Belgium’s plastic packaging recycling is overrated

Since the 1990s industry groups cheer the Belgian waste collecting system organised by Fost Plus. They claimed it makes Belgium “the champion of recycling”. But an investigation reveals that, in reality, far less plastics are recycled than Fost Plus claims.

3 oktober 2019 Rob Buurman

Belgium will likely have to change its waste policy in order to reach the new EU 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles. This year, Europe adopted the directive that obliges member states to separately collect 90% of plastic bottles from 2029. This target is part of the European directive on single-use plastics. Nine European member states are ready to attain this target, thanks to their existing national deposit-return systems. The other 18 member states will have to change their waste collection system.

Blue bags

Some Belgian companies, mostly in the retail sector, still are reluctant to introduce a deposit-return system on plastic bottles. They claim that the actual rate of plastic recycling is good enough.

But the RTBF documentary reveals that in reality, the plastics recycling is significantly lower than what they want people to believe.

What’s does the actual belgian system look like? At home, the Belgians throw their plastic bottles, cans and cardboard packaging in “blue bags”. The system of the blue bag is controlled by Fost Plus and these bags are collected on a regular basis.

Out of home, most plastic bottles are collected with public waste bins. In some locations, such as train stations or in offices, there are also dedicated waste bins for plastic bottles and other separately collected waste.

At the sorting centre

The journalists of the RTBF followed the trail of these blue bags. The RTBF-documentary reveals that the plastic content is not recycled in Belgium, but abroad, in Germany, the Netherlands and France, more than 350 kilometers away from the Belgian sorting centre.

The manager of the French recycling centre admits that only 68% of the PET he receives after sorting is actually recycled. The rest is incinerated. And then we are only talking about the losses of the PET-stream that has already been sorted, and not about the sorting losses when the PET is being separated from other waste streams. According to the RTBF this means that, while Fost Plus claims a 42% recycling rate of plastic, in reality it is rather only 29%. The real recycling rate is therefore less than one third of all plastics put on the market in Belgium. The remaining plastics are burned, dumped or end up in litter.

This confirms earlier fact checks, done by Recover, a cooperation between local municipalities and waste intercommunal organisations, and Recycling Netwerk (NGO). These organisations also concluded that the Fost Plus figures are exaggerated. According to Recover, only half of the plastic bottles are being recycled in Belgium. Recycling Netwerk estimated that maximum 61-67% of the plastic bottles are being recycled. The numbers of Fost Plus are incorrect because they weigh the plastic bales after sorting, while they still contain a lot packagings from abroad, wrongly sorted packagings, packagings from freeriders, liquids and dirt. And it all gets added to the recycling rate of Belgian packagings, leading to significant overestimations.

90% separate collection

The new EU 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles is not exactly the same as a recycling target. Right now, the European Commission is also working on guidelines on how to measure the 90%-target. But in any case: it seems unlikely that the new rules can be interpreted and bent in such a way, that a 90% separate collection rate in the statistics, will ever be achieved.

For decades, the industry has promoted the Belgian system as an “example” for waste collecting in Europa and the world. But the world is moving forward and the Belgian system is no longer seen as a best in class-example. After decades of tweaking and improving, the Belgian system still falls short significantly. There really is no reason to think it is able to leapfrog to 90% separate collection of plastic bottles, now that so many people consume plastic bottles out of home. Separation at home with the blue bag, simply offers no real solution.

Deposit-return systems

Only the countries with a deposit-return system are ready to attain the European 90% target: Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, and Sweden. Lithuania even proved within 2 years after the introduction of the system that it could exceed the target with a separate collection rate of 91.9%.

The Netherlands are currently planning to expand the deposit return scheme on plastic bottles larger than 1 liter, to all plastic bottles. The UK government and the French government are making legislation to introduce deposit-return. The French proposal has the support of the beverage companies, the supermarkets and the French public opinion. Slovakia voted its law on deposit-return in September.

In Belgium, the Brussels region announced a deposit-return systems in its coalition agreement and Wallonia stated it will defend the introduction of the system. Meanwhile, more than a thousand cities, companies and NGOs have joined forces in the Statiegeldalliantie (Deposit Return Alliance) to ask the Dutch and Belgian governments to introduce deposit return on all plastic bottles and cans in the Netherlands and Belgium.