Thursday, February 27, 2014

Recycling: The Belgian Way

Earlier this year I blogged about "recycling" in Albania; now I am writing about recycling in Belgium and let me just say, it is a whole different beast here in western Europe. Like so many other things in Belgium, trash disposal, which includes recycling, is highly organized and regulated. As a newcomer to the country, learning the Belgian way of dealing with trash is both time consuming and heartening since at the end of the day, it makes this a better place for all of us to live.

I knew trash disposal was serious business when upon signing our lease, we were promptly handed six pages of charts, schedules, and rules outlining how we were to get rid of our household waste. After being informed that we would receive a "trash tax" bill in the mail and that we must pay it promptly, our housing counselor told us that we were lucky since as residents of the center city of Mons, we would receive twice weekly trash pick up instead of the customary one. (In a house without a garbage disposal or composting options, this is proving to be especially important). But he also warned us that in order to have our trash picked up, we had to place it on the curb before a designated time in special bags. Yes, no Hefty trash bags here. And using those plastic bags from the grocery store? I think not; most grocery stores do not even have any disposable bags at all. Rather, as I discovered, you have the choice of purchasing reasonably priced, reusable bags, even less expensive plastic bags (that are again clearly reusable), or hauling everything out of the store in your arms.  So for disposing of our trash we are required to purchase rolls of biodegradable bags at the local grocery store. These blue or grayish bags are produced by Hygea, the local trash company and while not necessarily expensive, it is in our best interest to cram as much as possible into each bag. After all, each bag is money and since our neighbors have clearly managed to contain their trash to one bag per pick up, I am determined that we can too.

In the United States we were avid recyclers and instinctively knew how to sort our plastics, metals, glass, and papers in order to abide by the local regulations. The city provided us with huge wheeled bins and curbside pickup so there really wasn't any excuse for not recycling. In Albania what recycling was available was very loosey-goosey with my being told upon inquiry to just dump it all together and it would get sorted and separated later. Really??? I quickly discovered that the most efficient recycling program was that of the Roma dumpster divers. After all of this, in Belgium I'm finding the sorting system to be less than intuitive and am struggling through a learning curve. Here plastic beverage containers are recyclable and go in the blue bag while plastic yogurt containers are considered trash for the grayish bags. Aluminium, aerosol cans and jar covers are blue bag materials while other metals, Styrofoams, and plastic wrappings are trash. As are food scraps, old, toys, and clothing. Actually, when you come to think about it, a lot of things are considered trash which is why the grayish bags cost ten times as much as the blue ones.   But all of these items, along with sorted, broken down, and tied papers and cardboard will be picked up outside of our stoop twice a week. Bottles and glass are a completely different category unto themselves. These must be sorted by color- clear and everything else- and placed in the bunker-like domed recycling bins at any of the numerous community recycling centers. I've already located our local recycling center and plan on taking my bottles over there soon.

Recycling in Belgium takes work. I have the recycling cheat sheet taped to the refrigerator for easy reference. We're constantly reminding Sidney that not every trash can is actually a trash can and only certain items can be placed in each one. (Evenings find me sorting through both of our bins performing a quality control inspection). But all it takes is a quick look around any Belgian community to see the benefits of recycling. The lack of disposable grocery bags means very few wayward and windblown pieces of plastic laying along the roadsides. Sidewalk trash cans are readily available along every city street and they are emptied on a regular basis. Sure it is taking me some time to figure out what goes where but teaching Sidney the reasons for doing so are proving to be an important lesson.  I for one enjoy driving or walking down the street and not seeing trash and am glad to be a part of it. Now if I can just remember to always bring my bags into the store with me.

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