Slow and steady the best course for national recycling, Belgian expert says

"Industry can lead the way if it puts its own interests aside."

recycling (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Rushing to put in place a national recycling program in one fell swoop could very easily cause it to collapse, William Vermeir told The Jerusalem Post recently. Vermeir should know. He is deputy general manager and director of operations of Fostplus, the body that runs all the recycling programs in Belgium, which has the highest recycling rate for packaging in Europe - more than 90%. Vermeir was invited by the Manufacturers Association of Israel and the Ela Recycling Corporation to visit Israel recently and consult for all of the relevant bodies involved in Israel's recycling. At present, Israel has some recycling for plastic bottles, paper and cardboard. In a few select places, glass bottles are also recycled. In Belgium, the initiative to recycle came from industry and Vermeir had some specific advice for Israel's companies. "You don't have to copy our system. You need to study and reflect on the optimal system. Present a united front. Put aside individual interests and market share and think only about the most optimal system. Decide on one solution and then give a clear message to the politicians and the public that you are engaged. Sign a contract to collect packaging and finance the collection." To the authorities, Vermeir recommended, "Discuss well with industry and go step by step. Take your time to spread the program out over the country. Study other country's examples. You have to develop a strategy carefully and in an intelligent way [rather than rushing to a foolhardy solution]." Tzvi Goldstein, head of the Food Division in the Manufacturers Association, said that Israeli industry would be following Vermeir's advice. "We're looking for a comprehensive solution. We'll study their system and we'll go step by step building ours. We will create a policy that is in line with the developed countries," he told the Post. Vermeir explained that packaging refers to any and all consumer products which are packaged, like food, beverages, detergent and many other items. In Belgium, there are both local and European Union laws which lay the responsibility for recycling on what Vermeir colloquially described as the "fillers." "The fillers, the companies which make the products which are packaged, are responsible for recycling all of the packaging," he said. When the European Parliament passed a directive in 1994 ordering companies to begin recycling packaging, Belgian industry took the initiative and got together to form Fostplus to develop a comprehensive program, according to Vermeir. It began operating in 1995, a full two years before Belgium passed its own legislation. "Industry had a double motivation. On the European level, pressure and consensus was growing that action was needed. The secondary reason was that industry did it for its image," Vermeir told the Post by phone, in between stops. Fostplus spent a lot of time carefully thinking out a program, Vermeir said. They examined other programs, talked to the central authorities, ministries, ministers and umbrella organizations of municipalities, he said. Once they agreed on the program, they spent a lot of money promoting it, using teaser campaigns. "We implemented it gradually in the north, and then spread it to the south and the center over time," Vermeir recounted. Nowadays, the organization coordinates the recycling of over 90% of all packaging, even though the goals set out in the legislation are only 80%. It is also remarkably cost-efficient, at 12 euros per person per year, four of which are covered by the cost of selling the material to be recycled. The remaining eight euro per person tab is picked up by industry, rather than passed on to the consumer, according to Vermeir. At least one euro per person is spent on PR campaigns informing the public how to recycle. Fostplus has received very good cooperation from the public, Vermeir said. "Citizens are willing to sort," Vermeir said. "They do a good job quantitatively and correctly so that we can keep the system economically feasible."