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Interview with Luc Vanacker, Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM) and Kristof Van Stichelen of the home-composting NGO Vlaco in Mechelen

ParticipantsInterviewLiterature

Solid waste disposal has become the focus of public awareness and concern for environmental pollution all over the world. Public opposition to locating almost any type of commercial hazardous waste facility has made it difficult to build new facilities. At the same time, existing landfills are filling up and it is becoming more and more difficult and costly to develop new landfills. This is not much different in Flanders, one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. What makes this region in Belguim different is its innovative waste reduction policy which shows impressive results: whereas in 1997 only 19% of the population did home composting, the number rose to 43% in 2009. It also means more citizen participation and social integration at local level since the home composting programme is strongly based on volunteers.


Elke Loeffler interviewed Luc Vanacker and Kristof Van Stichelen on 26 February 2010 in order to learn more about the home-composting approach of the Flemish region.

Participants


Kristof Van Stichelen
Vlaco advisor / team coordinator

Luc Vanacker
Public Waste Agency of Flanders
(OVAM), chairman of Vlaco

Elke Loeffler
Governance International



Interview

Elke Loeffler: Clearly, waste reduction is a key objective of waste management agencies today but the home composting approach of the Flemish region is still unique. What have been the drivers of this programme?

 

Luc Vanacker, OVAM: Vlaco and the home composting programme fit with the development of the waste policy and history. In the early 1980s, landfills weren't acceptable to the people, the existing incinerator capacity was limited  and there was confusion about the distribution of responsibilities in waste management in Belgium. At the same time, many environmental responsibilities were decentralised to the regional level and, as a result, the Public Waste Agency of Flanders, known as OVAM, was established in 1981. This meant that the responsibility for waste prevention and management, including soil remediation, were integrated into one agency. One of our first tasks was the development of municipal waste management plans, which we did in close consultation with all public and private stakeholders. Even though the first waste plan from 1986-1990 was still a ‘waste elimination plan’ we made a first step towards waste prevention and recovery by raising the price of landfills and incineration to make separate collection of waste and recycling more attractive.

 

With the second waste management plan the emphasis lay on prevention, separate collection and recycling for the different waste streams, with biowaste, garden and kitchen waste as the most important fraction. In 1992, Vlaco is founded with OVAM, the intermunicipalities and the compost companies as partners to realise the Flemish waste policy for biowaste (compost facilities, creating market, stimulate prevention).

 

Kristof Van Stichelen, VLACO: As a representative of VLACO, I believe that the foundation of our NGO back in 1992 as the Flemish compost organisation gave OVAM the infrastructure to make the home composting idea a reality at local level. Of course, the inter-municipal associations also played an active part in this initiative from the very beginning.



 

Elke Loeffler: What is the role of VLACO in the home composting programme? Could you give some examples how this programme works in practice?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: VLACO plays an important role in the programme as an expert centre to which citizens, but also staff of local authorities can,address when they have questions on composting. We also run a lot of marketing initiatives to promote the practice of home composting. For example, we are present at various fairs and flower markets with a stand and also go to schools. We also issue a magazine called ‘De Compostmeester’ which is free for all our members. Furthermore, we carry out quality control of compost for agricultural use and we commission research on composting. Our information campaigns and training courses for citizens and local civil servants are very successful and receive a lot of interest. This applies in particular to our ‘June Compost month’ activities where 55% of the Flemish municipalities participates with their local staff. Our biannual master composter congress is attended by more than 1000 participants.




Elke Loeffler: How do you convince citizens to start home-composting?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: I think our success is mainly due to a mixed ‘pricing and sensibilisation’ approach. On the one hand, we use economic incentives to make people change their behaviour. For example, OVAM recommended the price for each plastic bag for residual waste collection be 1 Euro in 1998. At the same time, the equipment needed for composting such as compost bins are subsidised up to 70 % so that home composting is the cheaper alternative to waste collection. So economic incentives have been very important. We have also strongly invested in information and sensibilisation campaigns and in training.  In recent years, smart gardening ( the processing of garden waste in your own garden) is gaining importance.  Home Composting became a part of the gardening cycle.

 

Luc Vanacker: I believe that also the municipal demonstration areas which are usually close to the container area have been very important to give people a concrete idea what this is about and that compost-making is not a smelly business. The demonstration areas offer a very good site for workshops and most of them are open to the public during fixed opening hours.

 

 

Elke Loeffler: How can a citizen become a master composter?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: Until 2002, the composting courses included seven training sessions. The participants of the first years were usually very motivated. In recent years, however we found that the participants of the training mainly wanted to gain knowledge for their own gardens and only a limited number of them wanted to be active master composters. Therefore, in 2003 VLACO re-designed the training as a "three-stage process": a composting course (of three lessons), a master composter introduction period and a master composter training (of six lessons). Our schedule includes theoretical lessons, practice-oriented knowledge and communication skills. Once course participants have attended all lessons they are not only able to produce high-quality compost but also to train others in compost-making. Presently we are also developing a special training course for school children and a training course for neighbourhood composting.

 

 

Elke Loeffler: What is the profile of the master composters? Do you need to have a garden in order to become a compost-master?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: In the beginning of the compost-maker programme in 1998 most trainees were members of an organic gardening club in Flanders. However, as citizens developed a stronger economic interest in reducing organic waste which amounts to 50 % of household waste, the participants of our courses became more diverse. In the meantime, the volunteers attending our courses represent all social classes. We do not have any gender bias and there are also ethnic minorities who participate in the training courses. The good thing about our programme is that you do not need to have a big allotment but we have developed a cheap system which works very well for small gardens. But even if citizens do not have a garden they can still join ‘neighbourhood composting schemes’ which means that a collective compost bin for organic waste is provided by the municipality.

 

 

Elke Loeffler: So how many citizens have been trained by VLACO until now?

Kristof Van Stichelen: In 2009 we had trained 4000 master-composters. Of course, there are many more citizens active in home composting in Flanders. According to our statistics, more than 40% of Flemish citizens practice home-composting.



 

Elke Loeffler: Which other performance indicators do you have in order to assess how well VLACO AND OVAM have been doing in composting?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: For VLACO, the quality of the compost is also an important performance indicator. Indeed, we commissioned a study of the quality of the household compost in 2002 and learnt that the quality was very good and measured up to nearly commercial standards.

 

Luc Vanacker: Of course, OVAM sees the compost-making initiative within a wider context of waste management policy. In the current municipal waste management plan we have further tightened the targets for the reduction of residual waste. In particular, we need to make the transition from simple composting to integrated prevention and waste free gardening. In this scenario, home composting is only one way of limiting waste.


 

Elke Loeffler: Why do you think has the home-composting programme been so successful?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: I think that the master composters are much more credible than public officials to spread the word about ‘home-composting’ in their local area. They can also explain composting better than experts using their own words and demonstrate the way it works on local demonstration areas. But, of course, we have only been able to roll out the programme so quickly because of the excellent partnership working with OVAM and the intermunicipal associations. And of course, the good press coverage of our projects has helped, too. 

 

 

Elke Loeffler: In your view, what have been the key obstacles in implementing the home composting programme?

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: Since all the master composters are volunteers their motivation is a key element for the success of the programme. However, we often observe  a “clash” between their enthusiastic engagement and administrative rules of Flemish local government. Volunteers could be supported more by finding more unbureaucratic ways to cover voluntary work with insurance and to reimburse them quickly for direct costs they incur. The present system is clearly too cumbersome.

 


Elke Loeffler: How much does the home-composting programme cost? And who finances the programme?

 

Luc Vanacker: In total, the home-composting programme costs 0.35 million Euro per year.on the level of Vlaco. (We don’t know the cost on the level of the municipalities and intermunicipalities.)

 

 

Elke Loeffler: What does good governance mean for you?

 

Luc Vanacker: For me good governance means participative planning, networking and commitment. OVAM has only been effective in meeting the targets I just outlined because we practice strong partnership working with the municipalities and the private sector.

 

Kristof Van Stichelen: I think that principles of good governance should apply everywhere but they need to vary locally.

 

 

Elke Loeffler: What is your vision of waste management in 10 years?

Kristof Van Stichelen: I think that citizens have to become more aware of the environmental effects of waste they produce. The key objective must be the prevention and re-using of waste. For VLACO, this means that we will focus on advising citizens how to plan and manage gardens in ways which prevent the removal of garden residues.

 

Luc Vanacker: We also need to work more closely with the private sector. The acceptance obligations must become operational for a wider variety of products, as a result of which financing of the waste policy will be at the start of the chain with the purchase of the product rather than at the end when the waste products are gathered for separate collection. Furthermore, the collected waste must be more purified so that better and cheaper outlets can be found in the recycling industry.  There must also be more experimentation with schemes to stimulate environment-friendly consumption. For example, Carrefour encourages consumers to buy reusable boxes by awarding bonus points. In Mechelen, some shops give little presents to shoppers who do their shopping by bike. I trust that there will be more such initiatives in the future.

Governance International is grateful to Luc Vanacker and Kristof Van Stichelen for this interview


Literature

For more information on the home-composting approach of the Flemish region please see:

Website of the Flemish Organisation for Composting, www.vlaco.be

Website of OVAM, the Flemish Public Waste Agency, www.ovam.be

Website of the European Compost Network, www.compostnetwork.info

 

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