Tipping the scales on local recycling


They said it couldn’t be done. But Fost Plus did it anyway. With the official opening of the groundworks at Ecoo Beringen, Fost Plus has taken the next step towards transforming Belgium into a recycling hub for plastic household packaging.

In 2020 79% of all household packaging waste was recycled in Belgium itself. This mainly applied to glass, paper-cardboard or metal. At the same time, only 9% of all plastic household packaging was recycled in our own country. Most of it departed from Belgian sorting centres towards Germany, the Netherlands or France. A small percentage ended up with trusted recycling partners in Spain. Not a kilo of Belgian packaging marketed by Fost Plus left the European Union. That is quite an accomplishment, considering how environmental organizations regularly obelize packaging waste from other European countries ending up in landfills in Turkey or Malaysia. Although the recycling partners abroad may be subject to strict control, ensuring the effective treatment of the materials, the fact still remains that valuable (secondary) raw materials leave Belgium. This compels the Belgian production industry to procure secondary raw material abroad. Local recycling capacity tips the scales.

A local circular economy

The circular economy aims to loop resources that have lost their former function back into society. This limits the need for virgin resources and refocuses local economic activities. By not only putting materials in the chain, but keeping them here, we create leverage for local and durable industrial economic activity. In the case of household packaging waste this means that the packaging of products sold on the Belgian market gets recycled in Belgium, so that the secondary raw material can be used again to make packaging or new products for the market. It’s a quasi-closed loop system.

There are three mayor advantages to recycling close to home:

  1. Stability. Companies are less subject to volatile foreign markets. Urbanized Europe only has limited natural resources. Opting for locally produced secondary raw material helps protect the sparse European natural resources and reduces the dependence on other, often less stable nations.
  2. CO2 reduction. Recycling almost always emits less greenhouse gas than mining primary raw material. There is of course the transportation to sorting and recycling plants, and the recycling process itself. Even so, recycling generates such a large CO2 saving that the net balance is positive. This can be explained by the fact that plastic packaging that is returned into the circular economy, will no longer end up in an incinerator via the residual waste. Recycling close to home has the additional advantage of saving on transportation.
  3. Supply chain management. The production industry has reliable access to high quality, locally produced secondary raw material. It is a matter of supply and demand. As qualitative secondary raw material is abundantly available, it will become competitive with virgin material.

The International Resources Panel estimates that resource efficiency developments would reduce natural resource use by 28% and greenhouse gas emissions by 72%, and still improve economic growth.

We can’t keep wasting resources. Products and materials must be kept in the economy. (…) When it comes to products like (…) packaging, we should be able to get the materials back so they don’t end up in landfill.


Economically viable recycling

With the introduction of the New Blue Bag, Belgians can sort almost all plastic packaging waste in the PMD bag. Fost Plus calculated that by 2022, when the New Blue Bag is at cruising speed, 250,000 tons of PMD packaging waste will be collected annually. That’s an increase of 90,000 tons per year, or 8 kg for each of the 11,4 million inhabitants. Contrary to some other countries, the blue PMD bag is a country-wide system, ensuring uniformity in the sorting message and thus uniformity in the collected materials. The collected materials are then sorted by the same strict specifications in five sorting centres. This uniformity is of paramount importance as it allows for scalability. Finally the sorted materials, 14 different fractions or material types to be precise, get recycled into new secondary raw materials by specialized recycling partners.

For some materials, the recycling is easy and the process well-established. For others not so much. In those cases, the recycling chain needs to be built up from the ground.

To develop new recycling chains, two conditions must be met:

  1. Stable quantity
  2. Stable quality

Today, this is the case, with the New Blue Bag guaranteeing a stable inflow of material and the new sorting centers guaranteeing a set quality perimeter.

With long-term sourcing contracts Fost Plus managed to attract investments in Belgian recycling plants. Over the next three to five years, no less than five new recycling plants will be erected on Belgian soil. The key to success was guaranteeing them a fixed amount of material, in line with the necessary quality demands. What’s more, all of them have a recycling capacity surpassing the Belgian household packaging. That means they can attract other partners: household packaging waste from our neighbouring countries or post-industrial waste streams. This reciprocity ensures economic viability.

Ecoo Beringen, unique in Europe

The groundwork at Ecoo Beringen has officially kicked off on May 20, 2021. It is the second of the five new recycling plants, the first one being already fully operational. Ecoo Beringen will specialize in the recycling of PE (polyethylene) foils. These flexible plastic foils make up about two thirds of all household packaging foils, with applications ranging from plastic shrink-wrap around multipacks to bags for grated cheese to the blue PMD bags themselves. From January 2022, the recycling centre will process some 42,000 tons of PE foils annually. Fost Plus is committed to supplying 25,000 tons of Belgian PE foils for recycling every year. For the residual capacity, Ecoo Beringen will recycle agricultural film and inflow from abroad.

PE foil can be recycled circularly into new foils without any degradation of quality. Therefore, there is a great need in Europe for processing capacity of this fraction with such a high quality assurance. But even if the recycling of post-industrial foils is still marginal, the recycling of post-consumer foils is almost non-existent. Especially in these quantities. Thanks to the state-of-the-art technology at Ecoo Beringen, the high purity of the recyclate broadens the application possibilities for recycled low density PE films (r-LDPE). Ecoo Beringen will set a new standard for r-LDPE. The subsequent material and energy hub created by the recycling plant and its neighbouring biosteam plant will create leverage for a local production industry with r-LDPE.

Today we are at a turning point. By creating local recycling capacity, Fost Plus ensures that Belgian household packaging material is recycled in Belgium and that the new secondary raw materials are used to support the local production industry. In order to continue to strengthen the industrial tissue, now there has to be constancy in policy. This allows us to focus on the objectives of the Fost Plus agreement (2019-2023) and to prepare what comes next. This is the way forward to transform Belgium into a recycling hub at the heart of Europe.