OVAM (Public Waste Agency of Flanders) is the government organization in Flanders responsible for clean soils, waste and materials policy and circular economy. Specifically for plastics, the plastics implementation plan was approved by the Flemish government in 2020. The 5 key targets of this plan are:
- Use less plastics, and use them more efficiently
- Create a sustainable recycling market for plastics
- Use plastic recyclate as a fully-fledged raw material
- Gather knowledge and data on the plastics value chain
- The exemplary role of governments through circular procurement policies
Relevant in that context is our search for the reasons why certain recyclates are not used in plastics applications. Producers are still too often reluctant to use plastic recyclates in new products. They usually opt for virgin plastics, in part because of their consistent quality and often low selling prices linked to the international oil market.
But the pressure to use recyclates is increasing. The volume of plastics on the market continues to grow, the collection and sorting of plastics is increasing and focusing on more quality. Europe will quadruple its recycling capacity for plastics by 2030 compared to 2017. And in doing so, the EU is formulating concrete targets for the marketing of recyclates.
9 building applications
Through its procurement policy, Flanders can be an important lever for the deployment of plastic recyclate. Indeed, an OVAM study shows that there is a lot of potential in the construction and public procurement segment. The study, conducted by Centexbel-VKC (the Belgian center of competence for the textile and plastic processing industry), provides recommendations to promote the sales in 9 building applications, including PVC window profiles, sun protection and insulation. These materials and products can be made from plastic recyclate without loss of quality or technical objections.
Unknown makes unloved
The researchers interviewed producers and screened tenders and other documents for elements that prevent the use of plastic recyclate. They came to the general conclusion that for concrete or steel structures the texts do contain references to the use of recyclate, but not for plastic structures or variants. Construction companies appear to prefer working with materials, products and systems that have been in use for a long time, such as concrete, asphalt, ceramics, metal and wood. Public tenders also usually contain a lot of information about those materials (and products), not about plastics.
Contracting authorities must be able to justify and demonstrate why certain materials are prescribed or better rated. They must also be able to reliably check and monitor this during implementation (via certificates, technical data sheets, labels, etc.). They largely lack the knowledge and resources to do this themselves for each job and to monitor it.
However, the time is right to permit or even encourage the use of other materials such as plastic variants from recyclates. Standard specifications of public tenders can be an obstacle initially, but once they are adapted, these adaptations are also applied uniformly and on a large scale.
Moving away from technical specifications
Standard specifications are updated every six years. That is really expert work. Because adapting standards is a fairly slow and difficult process, the researchers recommend using functional specifications in (new) tender documents. This means that you do not include any technical specifications, such as what material the construction product or work should consist of, but you do formulate requirements about, for example, use, lifespan, appearance and functionality. This gives more room for innovation.
OVAM will continue to disseminate the knowledge and recommendations from this study. Ultimately, we want to see the recommendations from the study anchored in the specifications of the Flemish government. This can be done, for example, in cooperation agreements concluded with Flemish agencies and departments or in the form of award criteria for circular building contracts.
A new Flemish public procurement plan may also be developed shortly. The government will look at how it can respond to the European Green Deal and the action plan on circular economy, both of which advocate the use of plastic recyclates.
Consult the complete study here (Summary and recommendations are available in English p.14-18).