Thoughtful commitment to a circular economy reduces pressure on the environment and climate. It provides opportunities for businesses and reduces the EU's dependence on foreign raw materials as an economic region.
The Flemish Government wants to make Flanders a circular leader in Europe. It wants to do this by investing in circular innovation, disconnecting our material footprint from economic growth and reducing this footprint by 30% (compared to 2010) by 2030. The Flemish government is serious about the ambition. That is why Flanders is investing in the ambitious partnership Flanders Circular, where partners from the financial world, social profit, research institutes, industry and governments are really working on this circular transition. In the steering group, 20 core partners commit themselves to making a difference for tomorrow with coordinated actions today. This cooperation model is unique in Europe.
This startegic agenda builds the basis that fully realises the (circular) potential of the Flemish bioeconomy.
This working agenda helps Flanders evolve into a leading international circular hub for chemicals and plastics.
This strategic agenda shapes a future where quality housing, working and living is paramount. For everyone. And with respect for people and the environment.
This strategic agenda aims to get more than half of Flemish manufacturing companies (in the mainstream and social economy) actively working towards circular economy by 2030.
This strategic agenda aims to reduce the material footprint and environmental pressure of the agri-food chain, while keeping the economic importance of the system at least the same in Flanders. This through optimal use of bio-resources, food products and residue streams.
This strategic agenda goes for an accelerated application of the principles of circular economy within the water landscape in Flanders: reducing water consumption, the right quality for the right application, using water multiple times where possible.
The Flemish government is investing around 120 million euros in circular innovation in the period 2019 and 2022. Flanders is also investing further in research and monitoring its own performance with the CE Monitor and a new Circular Economy Support Centre for the period 2022-2026.
What is the circular economy?
The circular economy is an economic system that preserves the value of products, materials and other resources in the economy for as long as possible, using them more efficiently in production and consumption, reducing the environmental impact of their use, and minimising waste and releases of hazardous substances at all stages of the life cycle, including through the application of the waste hierarchy.
Why? 5 reasons
Committing to a circular economy lowers pressure on the environment and climate. It provides opportunities for businesses and reduces the EU's dependence on foreign raw materials as an economic region. More concretely:
1. Resilience | We secure access to materials/resources
Material costs are decisive in our economy: they represent up to 60% of total operating costs at manufacturing companies. Difficult access to certain raw materials or even their (temporary) unavailability, due to conflict, drought, floods, depletion... lead to sharply rising and volatile prices. By being smarter and more circular with materials and using more of what is already in our economy, we can better absorb supply shocks and stabilise prices.
To make the energy transition successful, we also need to factor in raw materials. The International Energy Agency calculated that for a climate-friendly energy transition in mobility, for example, the demand for raw materials in that sector alone could grow by a factor of 30 by 2040. If we can meet part of that demand with closed cycles, we kill two birds with one stone: a sustainable transition with recycled raw materials.
Our region has few raw materials and is therefore heavily dependent on imports from other regions. By getting our raw materials as much as possible from our own, Flemish, Belgian, European economy and managing available stocks more intelligently, we as a region and continent become less the pawn of geostrategic competition. European industry gains autonomy.
2. Excelling | Strong, cooperating companies with green know-how
Our competitiveness could also benefit from a circular economy. The number of companies with circular activities grew by 35 per cent over the past three years, compared to 15 per cent for all companies combined. The circular economy, through collaboration and innovation, strengthens relationships between companies, beyond company boundaries. This increased connectedness increases the resilience of companies to shocks (such as a pandemic, local conflicts, geopolitical instability...). Moreover, by focusing on eco-design, sustainable use of materials, product sharing, reuse, recovery, remaking and recycling, companies can create more added value. In turn, those Flemish circular solutions and expertise can be exported by the companies and knowledge institutions.
3. Jobs | We creëren nieuwe, betekenisvolle werkgelegenheid.
There is great potential for job creation as the strategies of the circular economy (repairing, maintaining, remaking, recycling...) are labour-intensive. These jobs will be locally anchored and provide new opportunities for people distanced from the labour market in addition to specialised technical staff. A thoroughly circular economy could provide Flanders with some 30,000 to 100,000 extra jobs by 2030. Circle Economy, commissioned by the King Baudouin Foundation, estimated the number of circular jobs in Flanders today at around 148,000 (7.5% of all jobs).
However, jobs will also disappear. A socially just transition should guide those workers and companies through the changeover.
4. Climate | We contribute to the achievement of climate targets.
A large part of our energy demand - and thus climate impact - is embedded in the way we handle materials: two thirds of territorial emissions in Flanders are material-related. In the broad sense, this refers to emissions caused by the production of goods and fuels, transport of goods, production and storage of food and waste disposal. Thus, there is great potential for circular strategies to reduce materials consumption and associated emissions. As an example, a combination of circular strategies could reduce the materials footprint of textile consumption in Flanders by 53% and lower the carbon footprint by 32%. The prerequisite: we must apply these circular strategies thoughtfully, with an eye for sustainability and climate. After all, the link between more circularity and fewer emissions is not automatic.
5. Environment and biodiversity | We reduce the harmful impact of our material consumption on the environment, people and biodiversity.
Ninety per cent of biodiversity loss is caused by the extraction and processing of raw materials, fuels and food. If we handle our materials more consciously and close cycles safely without toxic residues, less (hazardous) waste will be created. Less waste means less chance of (illegal) dumping, disposing, burning and all the accompanying social and environmental problems. Both here and abroad.
That the extraction of raw materials often has a very negative impact on people, the environment and biodiversity is no secret. By applying - again: thoughtfully - circular strategies, we can temper our own hunger for 'fresh' raw materials and help reduce the pressure of mining.
Why here? 5 circular assets of Flanders
We in Flanders have both the hardware and the software to make the shift to a circular economy.
Industry- Besides a strongly entrenched construction and manufacturing industry, we have a world-class agri-food sector and chemical-plastic and biotech clusters in Flanders. Add to this a well-developed social economy, a smart water sector and a pioneering recycling sector and it becomes clear: we have a lot of crucial sectors together.
Logistics - Flanders has an open economy: 72% of our flows of products and materials go abroad again, after processing or otherwise. Our central location, our extensive logistics network and our ports transport those flows. Combine that with short domestic distances and it becomes clear that Flanders can allow material flows and cycles to move optimally.
Involved citizens - We have a strong and conscious civil society, including civic initiatives that are strongly committed to the circular economy. Without support and critical engagement, no transition.
Brainpower - With our five universities and renowned knowledge institutions, we have a lot of brain power per square metre in Flanders. This is further complemented by several renowned companies that have established their international or European research centres in our region. Thanks to our technological and social innovation, we are finding clever solutions to thorny issues raised by the circular economy.
Policy - The Flemish, Belgian and European governments are investing heavily in innovation and pulling the cart of the circular economy. This creates a springboard and a framework for circular doers.
What are Europe, Belgium and Flanders doing?
The European Commission launched the Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. In 2020, the plan received an update. The plan is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal, the agenda for sustainable growth in the coming years.
The new action plan contains measures targeting the entire life cycle of products and aims mainly to:
reduce waste and keep used resources in the EU economy for as long as possible;
protect the environment;
preparing our economy for a green future;
strengthening our competitiveness;
and giving consumers new rights.
The European Green Deal sets out ambitious targets for Europe. All 27 EU member states have decided to make the EU the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 at the latest. They have therefore committed to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990 by the end of 2030.
In 2018, the Union put forward measures to make the supply of raw materials in Europe more secure and sustainable. The EU compiled a list of 30 critical raw materials in terms of supply and their importance for European industry.
In late 2021, the Belgian government approved the Federal Action Plan for a Circular Economy (2021-2024). The plan contains 25 proposals for measures under federal competence in areas such as product standards, consumer protection, public procurement, employment and taxation. In addition, the plan also contains proposals to monitor progress made.
The action plan is intended to complement the actions undertaken by the regions in the field of the circular economy. Cooperation between the federal level and the regions is also being given new impetus through the Intra-Belgian Platform for Circular Economy (IBPCE).
The plan is the successor to the earlier 2016 action plan. That plan contained 21 measures and focused mainly on human and environmental safety, transparency and consumer protection.
The Flemish Government wants to make Flanders a circular leader in Europe. It wants to do this by investing in circular innovation, decoupling the material footprint of our consumption from economic growth, and reducing this footprint by 30% by 2030.
That is why Flanders is investing in the ambitious partnership Flanders Circular. Flanders Circular activates as many partners as possible from the social pentagon (financial world, social profit, knowledge institutions, business and governments). In the steering group, 20 core partners commit to making a difference for tomorrow with coordinated actions today. Two ministers are jointly responsible for the transition: Hilde Crevits, minister of economy, innovation, work, social economy and agriculture on the one hand, and Zuhal Demir, minister of justice and enforcement, environment, energy and tourism on the other.
Circular change is too big a project to put in the basket of one team or organisation. For upscaling, mainstreaming, we need many hands and many different types of expertise. That is why Flanders Circular organises itself into six thematic strategic agendas: bio-economy, chemistry/plastics, circular building, manufacturing industry, food chain and water cycles. The working agendas are in turn supported by seven reinforcing 'levers'. These levers address challenges common to multiple strategic agendas:
Innovation and entrepreneurship
Jobs and skills
The Flemish government is investing around 120 million euros in circular innovation in the period 2019 and 2022. Flanders is also investing further in research and monitoring its own performance with the CE Monitor and a new research support unit CE Center for the period 2022-2026.
With a relaunch in 2020, Flanders Circular builds on the Materials Decree, the Flemish Materials Programme, Plan C and research support centre Summa, which merged in 2017 to form Flanders Circular.
How circular is Flanders?
21%. That is the short answer to the question. The circularity figure calculates how much of our materials in our economy come from recycling and reuse. The higher this share, the more circular the economy is called to be. By comparison, in Europe only the Netherlands scores higher with 31% (2020). Belgium as a whole follows in second place with 23% and the figure for the EU as a whole is 12.8% (2020).
Of course, the long answer is more nuanced: the circularity of the Flemish economy cannot be captured in a single figure. Such a figure goes a little too short for something as complex as the economy. That is why the Flemish Circular Economy Monitor takes a different approach: it provides a series of indicators per domain of our economy. More than 100 indicators in total.
The figures show that the Flemish economy is a big guzzler of materials. However, 72% of those materials, after treatment by our companies, are re-exported. We keep 20 tonnes of materials per inhabitant per year for our own use.
Our overall material footprint (a counterpart of carbon footprint) is unfortunately still growing. Flanders' ambition is to reverse this trend and initiate a decrease of -30% compared to 2010 by 2030.
Flanders does achieve so-called decoupling in terms of waste production: among households, the quantity of waste decreases, while the household budget remains almost constant. This is an absolute decoupling: the trend is downwards in absolute terms. Among companies, we see a relative decoupling: waste generation increases less rapidly than the growth of economic activity (GDP). So the trend is (still) increasing, but no longer in step, the increase is slowing down. Companies are increasingly sparingly using their raw materials.
In recent decades, Flanders has invested heavily in selective waste collection and the development of a recycling industry. This is reflected in the figures: we record high recycling rates. Of the total amount of household waste (including construction and demolition waste), 67% goes to a facility for recycling or composting. For commercial waste, 68% gets a second life. That becomes 79% if we add recycling and reuse of construction and demolition waste. The figure has increased by 10 percentage points over the past decade.
Yet this is not the end of the matter, because a large proportion of this recycling is still low-grade recycling (e.g. converting building materials into applications that are less demanding in terms of acceptance criteria of the material, such as grit for road foundations). The challenge for Flanders is to have more high-grade recycling, while also focusing on other circular strategies such as less use of materials, life extension through maintenance and repair, circular business models, ecodesign, reuse, innovative use of residual flows from agriculture and food. Such as, for example, using building materials not just for grit, but reusing or manufacturing building materials from circular materials. Think also, for example, of using biomass to make bio-based products and deploying them even more circularly, in order to become less dependent on fossil raw materials.