Two things are hard to miss when standing at the centre of Schuman roundabout, the beating heart of Brussels’ EU institutions neighbourhood. The first is the disquieting presence of a pharmacy guarding the entrance to every street. The second is the massive banner on the facade of the European Commission headquarters, the Berlaymont building.
For years, the Berlaymont banners have nodded to major EU political priorities. While in the past they were changed more frequently, since the beginning of this mandate the number deployed annually has been reduced to two.
To the inquisitive mind this elicits two questions. One: with all those pharmacies, how many pills are EU bureaucrats taking? And two: what happens to the banners on the Berlaymont building when they are taken down?
The word “waste” has been associated with the Berlaymont banners more than once since 2005, when the first was hung. Taxpayer concerns about their cost and necessity led to several parliamentary questions to the European Commission. Social media gadflies, meanwhile, had fun pointing out the irony of spending thousands on a banner advertising the EU’s pandemic recovery plan. According to a Commission spokesperson, the production, installation and removal of the latest banner cost €7.489,29.
Back to our original question: where do these banners go to die? Having sought out Jean-Luc Théate, managing director of DESIGNpoint, a Liège-based NGO specialising in the recovery of production surpluses and business waste, it transpires the answer is simple – they are reborn.
In 2009, DESIGNpoint was spun off from the Brussels-based social enterprise and IT equipment recycler CF2D into a textile upcycling business. Théate, a designer with 15 years’ experience at furniture manufacturer Mobitec, was asked to spearhead the project. Under Théate, DESIGNpoint focuses on upcycling PVC tarpaulins, the stuff banners are made of and which can’t be recycled without a highly polluting chemical process. This led him to reach out to Créaset, the company that designs and prints the banners hanging from the Berlaymont. A partnership was formed.
It transpires the answer is simple – [the banners] are reborn
Théate contacted a sofa producer he used to work for, and secured a deal to stuff cuts of tarpaulin inside couches – an arrangement that lasted until 2012. But DESIGNpoint’s collaboration with Créaset has endured, making it the Stella McCartney of the Brussels Bubble. The first accessories upcycled from a Commission banner were 260 bike bags to go with bicycles gifted to Commission employees.
Over the years, around 3,000 tote bags, messenger bags and other accessories have been produced from retired banners. The downside? As the dye rubs off, as dyes tend to, there are always several people in Liège wandering around with hands stained EU blue. So if your couch happens to be between eight and 11 years old or if you’ve ever been handed a Commission-branded tote bag on the events circuit, you might own a piece of a Berlaymont banner. And that’s why Berlaymont banners never die.