Is Fost Plus lying?

Is Belgium the world’s recycling champion? The kingdom’s own inconvenient truth.

The figures that Fost Plus, Belgium’s nationwide waste-buyer uses in the current debate about introducing deposit-fees are one big lie. Why is that? Fost Plus deliberately misinterprets the official figures of OVAM, the Flemish Government’s Waste Agency, claiming that disposable cans and bottles account for 10% of the litter, while it is more like 40% in reality.

Magic Plus

Let’s look at these OVAM figures in detail. From their officially published report ‘Impact analysis on introducing deposit on one-way beverage packaging’ (2015), Fost Plus quotes that “an analysis of the litter on different test locations shows beverage packages account for 10% of the identifiable litter in terms of single items”. So Fost Plus has it right at first sight.

But there’s more to read: “In terms of weight this is about one third of the packaging waste in the litter - or 33% of the total weight of the litter.” And five lines further, on page 41: “In volume, beverage packaging makes up 40% out of the total amount of litter. Figures from the Netherlands indicate that about 50% of the total litter volume consists of beverage packaging.”

Not surprisingly Fost Plus has tried to counter this OVAM-study

If Fost Plus says these interpretations are fundamental falsehoods, they are actually saying that OVAM is telling fundamental untruths. That is a courageous stance, having in mind that their new Fost license has to be approved by … OVAM before the end of this year.

Not surprisingly Fost Plus has tried to counter this OVAM-study. This is evident from the official and public OVAM ‘Addendum to the impact analysis’, dating November 2015. Page 4 reads: “After delivering the final report (…), Fost Plus, together with Comeos (Belgian retail) and Fevia (Belgian Food) ordered a comparative study (Guissard and Van Cauter, 2015) (…) that aims to re-assess the figures from the original study.”

OVAM concludes in this Addendum that ‘an estimate of 20 to 33% of weight, or 40% of volume, falls between the range of the previously recorded figures and can, in our opinion, be maintained.’ (p. 22)

What is this all about? Fost Plus, Comeos and Fevia have obviously read OVAM’s impact analysis, because they did not agree and paid a counter-study. After assessing this counter-study, OVAM retains their earlier figures. That must have been bitter to swallow for the ‘triumvirate of litter’.

Simply astonishing is the fact that Fost Plus publicly ridicules OVAM, claiming that OVAM states that the ‘correct’ figure is 10%, whereas the correct 40% is labelled as ‘fundamentally untrue’. I wonder how long OVAM will continue to sustain this arrogance.

The core tasks of Fost Plus

What makes it even worse is that Fost Plus is executing public tasks, assigned to them by the government in the ‘Cooperation Agreement on the prevention and management of waste packaging’ (November 4, 2008). “Cooperation agreement” sounds a little bit ‘optional’, but as it is published in the Belgian State Gazette, it has power of law, and sanctions can be imposed.

In article 3, a number of very clear tasks are assigned to Fost Plus:

1. to prevent and reduce the production of packaging waste or its harmfulness;

2. to ensure that the proportion of reusable packaging for similar consumer products does not diminish in comparison with the previous year and to ensure that the total weight of the one-way packages reduces compared to the previous year;

3. to promote re-use, and to promote and impose useful applications, in particular recycling, as well as to reduce the proportion of packaging waste in the non-selective collection.

On August 31 2017, the Flemish minister for the environment, Joke Schauvliege, responding to parliamentary questions, clarified a number of the Fost-objectives: “The evolution over the period from 2003 (…) to 2015 shows a total increase of 10.81% for the packaging waste.”

Fost Plus ‘flunked’ on task 1.

On the basis of which figures and whether this is specified per type of packaging is not clear, but it is certain that the increase is much higher for the plastics (the hazardous type of packaging), perhaps even the double.

On the basis of which figures and whether this is specified per type of packaging is not clear, but it is certain that the increase is much higher for the plastics (the hazardous type of packaging), perhaps even the double.

Minster Schauvliege continued: “The evolution of the reusable packaging is slightly negative for the household packaging, but it is strongly positive for company packaging. This increases the total reusable packaging.”

It must be said, “slightly negative” is an understatement as the evolution for reusable packaging diminishes from about 950,000 tons to 650,000 tons. That is minus 31.5%!

Fost ‘flunked’ on point task 2.

Minister Schauvliege: “The harmfulness of waste packaging is not something that can be unambiguously quantified. This is followed up in the context of the general prevention plans. These plans provide useful qualitative data at the level of individual companies and sectors, but these data cannot be processed into generally applicable statistics.”

It is obvious that clarification is essential for the sake of public health, given that on average 15% of plastic consists of (toxic) additives. One kilogram of plastic contains 150 grams of toxic additives (sic). But if the toxicity drops by 30% (to 100 grams) while the production doubles, we have 200 grams of poison in circulation instead of 150 grams.

And we leave the micro plastics out of the debate for the sake of this article.

Annual High Mass of Counterfeits

Fost Plus’ triumphant statement “We are the champions of recycling” is just as ‘fake’ as their figures on deposit fees.

The Fost Plus figures are about collecting, not about recycling. The figures in weight are due to glass and paper/cardboard. But these types of waste were already well collected before Fost Plus appeared on the stage.

In the case of plastics, the legal standard for recycling is 30%, Fost Plus only ‘collects’ 39.5%, and recycles –next to -nothing.

As far as bottles and cans are concerned, we can assume that Fost Plus does not achieve more than 60% collection. Countries implementing deposit fees collect up to 98% of the bottles and cans and recycle them from bottle to bottle. 

As far as bottles and cans are concerned, we can assume that Fost Plus does not achieve more than 60% collection, as they include all litter, the bio-material (residues of beverages), the losses in the treatments before they enter a recycling plant ànd the production losses in the recycling itself. Nevertheless, Fost Plus claims to recycle more than 100% of metal!

Countries implementing deposit fees collect up to 98% of the bottles and cans and recycle them from bottle to bottle. As individual packaging is counted, there are exact data on how much is recycled. When Germany says they recycle 98.5%, it is true.

Fost Plus tries to prove the impossible by juggling with weights and as a result they collect… more than 100% glass and metal. The strange thing is that those figures are accepted by OVAM and IVCIE (Organisation for packaging of the three independent regions of Belgium), that is to say, they are re-edited to … 100%.

Just imagine the 10 million one-way bottles and cans that the city of Antwerp annually sweeps up in the streets, disappearing like snow in the sun. The same goes for those in public trash bins, let alone those that end up in the river Scheldt. This is not a serious report. What are our MPs doing with this? Are they going to let themselves be fooled for a longer time? Is it not time for an audit?

Re-cycle or De-cycle

To finish with a somewhat technical discussion.

The law talks about useful usage, about incineration with energy recovery and about recycling. One would expect that recycling means re-cycle means bring back into the cycle, again, and again and again …

Fost Plus re-cycles 0,0% (ZERO) plastic packaging, they merely de-cycle plastic bottles into fleece, foil and synthetic fibers, which means new oil is needed to make new plastic bottles

However, this is not the case here. Fost Plus re-cycles 0,0% (ZERO) plastic packaging, they merely de-cycle plastic bottles into fleece, foil and synthetic fibers, which means new oil is needed to make new plastic bottles. They literally take the bottles out of the cycle. This has nothing to do with the literal meaning of re-cycling.

Fost Plus calls for a sustainable debate and an integrated approach. How can you promote an integrated approach when you reject a proven method (deposit) in advance? Apart from that, I do not know what a “sustainable debate” is, but I do know what a sustainable bottle is: it is a reusable bottle with a deposit.

First thing for Fost Plus is to communicate honest and transparent figures, and to carry out their statutory task: reducing packaging and its harmfulness and encouraging its reuse.

Is it not high time that the three Belgian parliaments call these patented liars to account, remind them of their assignment and ask themselves whether such an obscure club can still be granted a license … something that has to be done again at the end of this year.

Luc De Rooms is active at AXI, a foundation established in 1992 to put into practice the principles of the UN Rio De Janeiro conference. The non-profit organization offers courses, guidance, advice and support to third parties or public authorities and through its own projects.

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