Waste reduction is just as important as recycling

Flanders has had great results when it comes to waste reduction, and could serve as an example to other EU regions, writes Mark Demesmaeker.

Mark Demesmaeker | Photo credit: Eurpoean Parliament audiovisual

By Mark Demesmaeker

24 Nov 2016

Optimising our recycling rates alone will not be enough to make our economy circular. I made this clear in a previous contribution for this magazine. We equally 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.

Flanders, the nation I represent in the European Parliament, has turned its waste management into sustainable material management. Our approach is recognised as a global best practice by the 2015 United Nations global waste management outlook report.


Since 2005, the generation of household waste in Flanders has decreased by 14 per cent, or 77 kg per capita, to 468 kg of waste per capita a year today. Currently, approximately 70 per cent of this waste is separately collected in order to be reused, recycled or composted. 

In addition, the target of limiting residual household waste to 150 kg per capita has been achieved, with the total reducing to 141 kg per capita in 2015. Prevention, separate collection of waste and the polluter pays principle have all played a significant role.

Although this is the best result in 20 years, the challenge to further reduce waste remains important. For that reason, Flanders has recently adopted a new plan which sets more ambitious targets for 2022. 

The plan intends to reduce residual household waste (by an average 16 kg per capita, or two 60 litres trash bags) and similar residual commercial waste (by 15 per cent). Local authorities will have more autonomy and tailored targets are defined per municipality. Flanders also aims to strengthen its reuse record and wants to decrease litter by 20 per cent.

Obviously, a whole spectrum of 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.

Reusing is reducing. In 2015, the network of 128 Flemish 'kringwinkels' ('circular shops') attracted 5.6 million customers, 12 per cent more than in 2014, and collected 69,550 tonnes of products, an increase of three per cent compared to 2014. 

Almost half of these products were sold in the kringwinkels, a seven per cent 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.

Another effective example of reducing waste is 'de groene vent' ('the green guy'), an initiative which aims to reduce the ecological footprint of events. Via an online scan, organisers of festivals, markets, sport events and more can get advice on how to make their event more sustainable.

Finally, Flanders wants to further reduce biowaste by promoting 'kringlooptuinieren' ('circular gardening') and preventing waste via home composting, an activity which 35 per cent of Flemish citizens already engage in.

And, the food waste reduction target of 15 per cent by 2020, as adopted by the Flemish government in 2015, will contribute to the reduction of biowaste.

We need to boost our recycling performance but should put similar emphasis on waste reduction. With political will, sharing expertise, and cooperation with relevant stakeholders, we can make a difference.


Read the most recent articles written by Mark Demesmaeker - Reducing plastic use begins with proper waste and material management

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