In May 2021, recycling specialist Ecoo started construction of a state-of-the-art recycling centre, created by Fost Plus in collaboration with Biostoom Beringen. It is the first recycling plant in Belgium to provide film-to-film recycling of polyethylene. This is a plastic you find, among other things, in the outer packaging of a multipack and in packaging bags.
Some 47 million euros have been invested in the new recycling centre, which will create about 30 new, local jobs. The plant will annually recycle some 42,000 tonnes of packaging material into regranulate that will be used for blown film applications, rubbish bags or new packaging films. A large share of production will come from Fost Plus' new blue bag, which will supply some 25,000 tonnes of household plastic packaging material made of polyethylene film for recycling.
Belgium ahead of the pack
The Beringen plant is the first new recycling plant of five, which together will recycle more than 75% of plastic packaging material domestically from 2024. In 2021, the figure was still 12%. Thanks to the introduction of the New Blue Bag, 8 kg more plastic is collected per person per year than before. In this respect, Belgium is among the best students in Europe. The European target of recycling 50% of plastic by 2025 was already met in 2020. By 2021, we were at a 52% recycling rate.
Wim Geens, managing director of Fost Plus, outlines the ambition: "The blue bag was introduced in 1994. Since the end of last year, just about all pastics in all intercommunal areas were allowed to be collected in that PMD bag. There are five new sorting centres separating waste into 14 fractions. Four of these centres are already active. Until now, barely 12% of that waste was processed in Belgium, but by 2025 it should be 80%. In this way, we will save on material transport and greenhouse gas emissions."
And they are looking even further ahead. Koen Verhaert of Ecoo Group: "In addition to the current site, space is planned to mirror the plant for the recycling of other film materials, so that a total processing of 90,000 to 100,000 tonnes of plastic film should be possible."
Energy from steam
The plant in Beringen was built on a 12-hectare site owned by Bionerga N.V., which is 90% owned by climate company Nuhma (Nutsbedrijven Houdstermaatschappij, a utility holding company of the Limburg municipalities) and has set up a biosteam plant there. Biostoom Beringen produces steam (and thus electricity) from the incineration of non-hazardous and non-recyclable waste. The aim is for Ecoo Beringen's electricity consumption to be provided entirely by this steam plant by 2024. Biosteam is in turn supplied with residual pulp by the recycling plant.
"With this synergy, a first building block has been laid for a recycling hub at this location," clarifies Nuhma CEO Ludo Kelchtermans. In time, Ecoo Beringen hopes to attract companies to work with the regranulate it produces and make new plastic films from the recycled granules so that the circle is complete. Four to five companies are said to have already shown interest. "From our long-term vision, we have an eye for partnerships," says Koen Verhaert of Ecoo, which counts on annual sales of 25 to 30 million EUR with its new plant. For expected profit margins, it is still too early. In 2020, the company's turnover was over 11 million EUR.
Tom Helsen, who is at the helm of Ecoo Beringen, calls his factory "a big step towards the company of the future". On a tour of the company, he points to the use of the latest technologies and sustainable solutions to achieve the finest possible recycling of PE plastic into a near-virgin-quality end product. Magnets, infrared scans and sieves are used to extract metals and other impurities from the plastic waste, which also undergoes various washing processes and drying. "The heart of our business is our water treatment," says Helsen. "The purer the water, the better the final product. Not a drop goes into the sewerage system or is lost: in a 450 m³ wastewater basin, suspended solids are scraped off, on which the water is reused at around 30 m³/hr, totalling up to 160 m³. Only when the rainwater tanks run empty tap water will be used. The company also invests in artificial intelligence in quality measurement: "The real-time monitoring is in direct communication with the machines, which are thus automatically adjusted".