The platform for Belgium's international community

Search form

menu menu
  • Daily & Weekly newsletters
  • Buy & download The Bulletin
  • Comment on our articles

Sorting out the waste

12:37 10/10/2012

Many local authorities in Belgium require residents to sort rubbish by category for recycling, safe disposal or incineration. In many places, including Brussels, you can be fined if you don’t sort your rubbish properly.

Colour-coding for the capital

The following sorting guide is valid for Brussels. Other towns have similar systems; local waste collection authorities are happy to provide detailed advice. White bags are collected twice weekly; yellow and blue bags once.

Yellow bag

Paper and card goes in here and it must be clean and dry, not food-soiled or greaseproof, for example. Anything from the newspapers and phone directories to biscuit packaging and shoe boxes is good. Alternatively, fill cardboard boxes with paper, or tie bundles of newspapers or flattened cardboard boxes with string, so the collection team can clearly see that it’s paper only, but beware the effects of rain (you’re responsible until the moment of collection).

Blue bag

This one is trickier, as it is designed for an assortment of recyclable packaging materials: rigid plastic, drinks cartons, aluminium cans and food tins - emptied of food and rinsed (think of the person who has to hand sort your trash on conveyer belts at the sorting centre). Tetrapak-style drinks cartons can go in here, as well as water, shampoo and cleaning fluid containers. But not lighter weight plastic used for the likes of margarine and yoghurt pots, salad containers, and cake and biscuit packaging, as these cannot be recycled at present. Beware of recycling type logos on some containers - these do not mean it can be recycled but signal simply that the company contributes financially to recycling operations.

Green bag

Available in greener neighbourhoods only, this bag is for garden waste - trimmings, prunings, old plants, cut flowers, lawn mowings and leaves - and the collection is weekly from April to November. Food scrapes and other kitchen waste are not allowed in this bag - but are perfect compost materiel, if you have space. Chrismas trees are collected on a designated weekend in early January, and taken for composting. If not put out for colletion on the correct day, they go to the incinerator.

White bag

This is the bag for most non-recyclable household waste (from nappies to plastic biscuit wrappers and food-soiled paper).What can’t be reused or recycled in Brussels– 500,000 tonnes a year – goes up in smoke at the local incinerator along the canal in Neder-over-Heembeek. Around 30 percent in weight and 8 percent in volume remains after incineration. Metal is then removed, while the rest ends up under roads or in other landfill. The cinders are sent to Germany and the Netherlands, while the noxious dust and smoke filter residues go to special landfill sites for industrial ‘class A’ products.

Getting rid of glass

Collections vary between communes. Brussels no longer accepts glass (unbroken) in the blue bag. Residents should take old rinsed jars and bottles to one of the many’ bottle banks’ dotted around the streets (there are now separate containers for clear and coloured glass).Many beer, wine and water bottles have a container deposit levied on them at purchase. Return them to where you bought them (Delhaize wine bottles to Delhaize, Colruyt to Colruyt, beer almost anywhere) and you get 10 or 20 cents back per item. This is the most ecological option for container recycling, as a bottle can be washed and reused 50 times on average, which is far less energy-intensive, even counting the extra weight and transport costs, than either recycling glass or making it new from raw materials.

Too big to bag

If there’s any life left in your cast-offs, think of the charitable organisations that welcome donated objects for their stores. For truly defunct, broken or throw-out household objects – defined as things you can take with you when you move, i.e., mattresses, furniture, carpets and electrical goods, but not window frames, old sinks or building rubble – some authorities offer a free house-to-house collection service. Brussels Region will collect a maximum free volume of 2m3 every six months (beyond that there’s a fairly expensive cost per m3). It’s very easy: you book a date with the waste authority (Saturdays included), put the items out on the pavement that day and be there to sign the paper when the truck arrives. Other large objects can be taken to the local container park, which anyone renovating their home or indulging in a spot of DIY will likely get to know quite well. Rules can vary widely from region to region. Brussels has two regional container parks (in Laeken and Forest) where a team of eagle-eyed stewards check over your load and indicate what to put in which skip (and what must be paid for). Wood, metal, garden waste, old electrical goods and other junk are free to dump. Not so building waste, which costs €1.20 per60 litre bag. Roofing or asbestos may not be brought here, and must be collected by specialist companies.

Too toxic to toss

So-called ‘small chemical waste’ can also be taken to the container park, or to mobile collection points that visit each commune (in Brussels Region) on certain days of the week. Old paint pots and the like, mercury thermometers, photographic fluids (but not professional quantities), neon lights and medicines come into this category. They are then destroyed in a special incinerator. Pharmacies will also take out-of-date or superfluous medicines off your hands.

Need help?

New arrivals in Brussels who register with their commune now receive a Welcom (sic) Pack explaining the how-to of sorting and bagging and containing free yellow and bluebags to start you off. Visit - the website of the organization behind the collection and sorting of domestic packaging waste in Belgium, which has plenty of tips and info in English (click the General Public heading).

Green tips

Before we reach a zero-waste society (New Zealand’s working on it), here are some tips on how to cut your trash level. 

 • Buy food you’re going to eat, not vast quantities which will go to waste. 

 • Avoid over-packaged goods. Packaging has a purpose, but is usually more for marketing than for freshness. Someone’s paying for it too - first the consumer, and second the planet and our collective natural resources. 

 • Re-use and recycle as far as possible, or think of someone who could use your throwaways. 

 • Opt for less waste-intensive products: loose vegetables (no polystyrene trays), concentrated washing powders, multi-portion packets rather than individual cans or small cartons. 

 • Say no thanks to plastic bags. They are made using raw materials from on-renewable energy sources (petrol), transported to shops, thrown away within hours of use, then driven to the incinerator where they contribute to atmospheric pollution. The large supermarket chains no longer supply them freely, but small shops, pharmacies and snack bars are still big-time bag dispensers.


Written by The Bulletin