Wim Geens took over at the helm of Fost Plus at the start of this year. We asked him how his first hundred days had gone and where he sees the main challenges and opportunities for the coming years. It was a fascinating conversation about the growing importance of the circular economy, public cleanliness and the future of Fost Plus.
What struck you most during these first 100 days?
“Of course, I already had a fairly good idea of what Fost Plus does, but I was surprised by the scale and efficiency of the systems that we have developed over the years. You won’t find a system like this anywhere else in the world, and I think we as Belgians can be very proud of that. The enormous support among the members, who together make up a considerable proportion of the Belgian economy, struck me as well. Finally, I can rely on a team of particularly competent and motivated staff.”
“I was impressed by what had been achieved under my predecessor, as well. The introduction of the New Blue Bag is nothing less than a milestone. Every year, we recover over 250,000 tonnes of packaging that would otherwise end up in the residual waste. From about 15 to an average of 23 kilos per person per year – that's no mean feat.”
“What people see far less, is that further on in the chain we have invested heavily so as to be able to actually recycle all this additional packaging material. Four new sorting centres are already operational today, with a fifth under construction, and over the next two years, five new recycling plants will be opening specifically for plastic packaging materials – all in Belgium. A perfect example of a local circular economy that not only allows extra recycling, but also additional investments and employment.”
What will be the biggest challenges for the coming years?
“Our activities are more socially relevant than ever. The urgency of the climate issue has penetrated all levels of the population and companies are under huge pressure to assume their responsibility. We can help them with that. Because with every item of packaging that we recycle, we save CO2 and avoid the need to extract new raw materials. I notice from talking to members that they are becoming increasingly aware of this and that they are serious about it. Recyclable packaging and packaging made of recycled materials, where possible, give them a huge competitive advantage.”
“But from a macro-economic point of view, and even a geopolitical point of view, as well, the circular economy is becoming increasingly important. Rising materials prices and ever scarcer raw materials are threatening our economic growth and our prosperity. Just think of the supply problems we saw during the coronavirus crisis. The war in Ukraine is a painful illustration of how dependent we are on other countries for our raw materials. By keeping the materials that we have here in the chain for a long as possible, we can reduce this dependency.”
Where can Fost Plus make a difference?
“Technology and innovation play an important role in the circular economy. Just look at the advanced technologies that we use in our new sorting centres to sort plastics precisely and thus create new recycling flows. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. We are investing in new projects everywhere, for collection (pilot project on transporting PMD by water), sorting (testing the use of artificial intelligence) and recycling (new recycling technologies, such as chemical recycling).”
“I am convinced that with Fost Plus, we have to focus on these new developments and use our thought leadership to the full in this area. We have a particularly competent team and there is already a great deal of knowledge in house. We have to place this knowledge far more at the service of the public and society. At the same time, we mustn’t think we know it all. It is still just as important to remain connected with other stakeholders.”
In 2023, producer responsibility is to be extended to include litter. How does Fost Plus intend to deal with this?
“We can view this in two ways. We can interpret the extension as a purely financial responsibility and simply pay the bill we are given. But I see it above all as an opportunity to assume our role in society and actually contribute to a cleaner living environment.”
“Litter annoys everyone. The problem is high on the political agenda, at every level, and there is clearly a need for an efficient and effective policy. We are still seeing too much fragmentation at the moment. We also need to join forces with other sectors and producers. Contrary to what some people think, litter is not just packaging.”
“In addition, it's crucial to involve the public in our struggle, too. I see a lot of potential in an initiative like the Click, where we can reward good behaviour. But it goes further than that. Just as people are used to sorting their packaging at home, we need to extend this change in behaviour outside the home, as well.”
“In that sense, responsibility for litter is a logical development for Fost Plus. In the past few years, we have significantly widened our field of activity. We are everywhere where packaging is found – at the workplace, at events, in sports clubs and shortly in the street, as well. And that is necessary, because too much packaging is still lost that could perfectly well be recycled. The time is ripe to stick our neck out and take the next vital steps with our stakeholders.”