Flanders’ circular model inspires Europe

Mark Demesmaeker, Member of the European Parliament for N-VA / European Conservatives and Reformists Group

The European Parliament has finally given the green light to a more sustainable waste policy, which should pave the way for the transition from a linear to a genuine circular economy. Landfilling waste should be reduced and become the exception. The EU needs to reduce waste, and boost recycling and reuse.

As negotiator for the ECR group I am closely involved in this dossier and particularly pleased that innovative Flemish techniques lie at the heart of the new EU policies. Indeed, the Flemish circular model is seen as an inspiration by the rest Europe and that can only be beneficial for both our environment and economy.

Flanders, the nation I represent in the European Parliament, is a top performer and pioneer in material management and the circular economy. The Flemish Public Waste Agency, OVAM, has turned Flemish waste policies into sustainable material policy. Indeed the Flemish Government has integrated the transition to a circular economy as a priority in its long-term policy strategy “Vision 2050”.

In this regard, it is very important to recognise that the transition to a circular economy is not just simply an environmental file. On the contrary, it encompasses a substantial and wide-ranging paradigm shift, necessary to guarantee the welfare, wellbeing and competitiveness of our society and economy over the decades ahead.

Why is that? The EU largely depends on the import of raw materials, and a significant portion of these natural resources are rapidly depleting; yet we continue to waste considerable amounts of these valuable resources. Every EU citizen generates approximately 5 tonnes of waste each year, the weight of an adult African elephant. We currently only recycle 44% of this waste; an amount that is totally insufficient. Valuable resources subsequently disappear, and are too often left in the ground! Furthermore, there are enormous discrepancies between the Member States: some hardly recycle and continue to landfill over 75% of their municipal waste. Clearly, a “business as usual” scenario is not an option.

Therefore, a key challenge will be to reclaim as many resources as possible within the EU. Optimising our recycling rates alone will not be enough to make our economy circular. Equally, we need to tackle the more fundamental problem upfront by closing material loops and reducing the generation of waste. The decoupling of waste generation from economic growth, incentivising innovative business models and developing new production and consumption models are key principles to this end. In Flanders we call this “Plan C”, which is also the name of the hub created to make our economy more circular.

The Flemish approach is recognised as a global best practice by the United Nations Global Waste Management Outlook report of 2015.1 Moreover, OVAM won the Circular Economy Award at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016. Also, as mentioned earlier, in Europe,Flemish expertise is recognized as a key standard-setter. Together with colleagues from the European Parliament, I have visited some Flemish best practices and we will continue to do so in the near future.

Since 2005, the generation of household waste in Flanders has reduced by 14% (or 77 kg per capita), to today’s figure of 468 kg of waste per capita each year. Currently, approximately 70% of this waste is separately collected in order to be reused, recycled or composted, and that is the goal the Parliament wants all Member States to achieve by 2030. Furthermore, the target of limiting residual household waste to 150 kg per capita has been achieved, with the total reduced to 141 kg per capita in 2015.2 Prevention, separate collection of waste and the polluter pays principle have all played a significant role.

Of course, a myriad of different measures at various levels contribute to waste reduction. Allow me to briefly refer to some inspiring examples which have the potential to be replicated on a wider scale.

Reuse = reduce. In 2015, the network of 128 Flemish “kringwinkels” (“circular shops”) attracted 5,6 million customers, 12% more than in 2014, and collected 69.550 tonnes of products, an increase of 3% compared to 2014. Almost half of these products were sold in the kringwinkels, a 7% rise. This helped achieve the 2015 reuse target of 5 kg per capita. Kringwinkels thereby offer a positive contribution to the environment and to the social economy. For 2022, the reuse target has been raised to 7 kg per capita.3 Flanders has equally taken initiatives to curb food waste from farm to fork and wants to achieve a food waste reduction target of 15% by 2020. Innovative methods are developed for valorising organic waste and the promotion of “kringlooptuinieren” (“circular gardening”) home composting, an activity which 35% of Flemish citizens already engage in, equally contributes to reducing waste.4

We also have best practices on new production and consumption models: I refer to the Ocean Plastic Project from Ecover, which raises awareness on the importance of product policy and design. The bottle – made with 10% recycled ocean plastic, the remaining plastic recycled from other sources – illustrates how a relatively small player can genuinely contribute to tackling global challenges of marine litter and plastic soup. With the project, Ecover creates leverage to convince bigger players to step up their efforts. Another example is the PVC company, Deceuninck, who rightfully argue that PVC is a valuable material that should not be landfilled or incinerated. As of 2012, old dismantled windows can be returned to a new recycling factory, and the firm thereby helps ensure security of material supply. We also see an increasing amount of initiatives where consumers evolve to become service users, a concrete example being ‘pay-per-lux’ projects.

To conclude: trash is cash. We have an enormous opportunity to turn wastelands into fields of gold. Many stakeholders and companies want to seize this opportunity. Looking at the Flemish track record of the past 20 years, I am convinced that Member States can leapfrog in the short term and match our example; provided the necessary political will is there.

 

1 “Global Waste Management Outlook, case study 8, p. 260 – 265

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