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The waste management sector is facing a real revolution

28 September 2021


Renewi has had a new managing director since the beginning of June. Mark Thys succeeds Wim Geens, who has led the Belgian division since the merger of British recycling company Shanks and Dutch waste collector Van Gansewinkel. Thys shows ambition: “I want to significantly increase the pace at which we meet our sustainability targets.” 

Renewi is no longer just a waste disposal company, but a waste-to-product company. A few years ago, the organisation definitively adopted the circular approach. Managing Director Mark Thys: “Although I’ve only been with Renewi for a few months, I notice that sustainability is at the heart of the company’s operations. For example, during discussions with the Board of Directors, we don’t only talk about the financial figures. Discussions on how we can do more to close the loop are invariably on the agenda.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done in this regard. The 2021 Circularity Gap Report states that our world is 8.6 percent circular. In 2019, the figure was 9.1 per cent. So we’ve gone backwards. “It’s five minutes to midnight. OECD experts noted a few years ago that more than half of total greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to the use of raw and other materials. In other words, a circular economy can help limit global warming. But we have to act now.”

Recycling rate of 75 percent

Renewi is therefore shifting up a gear. “The waste management sector is facing a revolution. At least that’s what we need to close the circular gap. It’s up to big players like Renewi to take the lead and scale up and accelerate our actions.” 

Just how high the bar is set at Renewi can be read in the new sustainability strategy that the company announced in its 2020 sustainability report. In it, the group commits to achieving a 75 percent recycling rate by 2025. It is currently at 65.8 percent. “How will we raise that percentage in barely four years? We’re investing in innovative technologies that sort waste even better. There will be new sorting lines in Puurs, Ghent and (probably) Beringen. We also ensure pure flows. We do this by working with OVAM (Public Waste Agency of Flanders) to educate our customers even more on how to sort correctly. In addition, we help our customers thanks to more accurate sorting. This way, more material can be recycled. . We have calculated that the recycling rate of residual waste can be increased from 20 to 60 percent. That amounts to about 150,000 additional metric tons that we will be recycling every year."


In addition to better sorting, Renewi also looks at how it can give difficult-to-recycle materials a second life. “For this purpose, we enter into partnerships with other companies. For mattresses, for example, we’ve joined forces with IKEA, Ikano Industry and RetourMatras." Renewi has waste electro-appliances processed by its subsidiary Coolrec. It uses pioneering techniques to recycle, for example, the plastic from refrigerators and televisions into toys, watches, vacuum cleaners, etc. The company has also found a waste-to-product solution for disposable nappies (diapers). “The waste can be used to make glues, bins, clothes pegs and caps for cleaning products. Renewi plans to open nappy recycling plants in the near future.”

In order to boost the circular economy, Thys also reaches out to competitors and the government. “Both large and small companies will have to reinvent themselves so that much more is recycled, rather than burned or dumped. The government must encourage this much more through regulations, communication and follow-up. The new VLAREMA 8 is already a step in the right direction (see box). But more is needed. That is why we are happy to invite all the players to sit around the table together, directly or with our sector federation Denuo, to make sure that everyone gets their money's worth."

Own CO2 emissions

Trying to close the cycle by investing in innovation is one thing, but Renewi is also taking a close look at its own CO2 emissions. “By 2025, we aim to run 25 percent on renewable energy. Now we’re at 15 percent. That will soon change. At our sites in Puurs and Ghent, we’re building wind turbines. At 242.5 metres, the turbine in Ghent will be the highest on the Belgian mainland. It has a capacity of 4.5 megawatts and will generate around 13 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This is roughly equivalent to the electricity consumption of 4,300 households. This will enable Renewi to cover about 75 percent of its electricity needs.”

In order to significantly reduce the number of miles driven, the company will focus in Flanders on optimising its footprint around the new sites in Puurs and Ghent. “In this way, we will save some 220,000 miles a year by 2025. Our trucks also comply with the Euro 6 standard, the strictest emission standard to date. Of course, we’re not satisfied with that. The group is therefore investing in 65 electric collection trucks for Belgium and the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, some have been in use since August 2020.”

Employees as greatest assets

 The third dimension of the new sustainability policy has to do with wellbeing at work. “A sustainable company takes care of its employees. After all, these are your greatest assets. The safety of our employees is paramount. We have a safety plan to ensure that our colleagues are well protected. In addition, we organise specific courses on fire safety and manoeuvring heavy lorries (trucks).” Long-term thinking is also very important, according to Thys. “I will talk to the employees about their ambitions for the future and see how we can work towards them. Offering them a perspective boosts their motivation.

And to complete the circle, there’s another important aspect that affects the well-being of employees. Working for a company with purpose is a huge plus for many. In the past - and perhaps still today - the sector had a negative image. Today, our employees feel they are doing their bit for a better society. Working towards a circular economy is therefore a win-win situation for everyone."