Circular Economy Fairy Tales Recycling

Metal Recycling Circularity Fairy Tale

What if metal recycling was not so sustainable?

Metal Recycling

There was a documentary on the French-speaking Belgian TV (La Une) regarding the metal recycling industry in Wallonia.

Wallonia is one of the 3 Belgian Region and has 3.6 millions inhabitants.

The documentary is called “Old Metals, the real cost of Recycling” (Vieux fers, le vrai prix du recyclage).

The documentary focuses on the environmental impact of the metal recycling industry in Wallonia.

The industry recycles old cars and metal scrap and are part of the “circular economy”.

In fact, they’re considered as a success story of the circular economy.


The journalists analysed the presence of chemical pollutants in the waters surrounding the metal recycling facilities.

They found many chemical pollutants in very big quantities.

The most important were aluminium, hydrocarbons, iron, diesel, oil and minerals.

Auto Control

These metal recyclers are supposed to be controlled.

Metal recycling facilities are supposed to be tested by independent labs.

This type of controls should be referred to as “auto-control” according to the journalists as there seem to be issues regarding the “independence” of the tests and labs.

The labs are paid by the metal recyclers. 

The metal recyclers are told in advance when the labs will come by to do the testing.

Some employees claim that there’s a difference between the tested “samples” and “reality”.


The journalists seems to focus their attention on PCB.

They claim that the metal recyclers are releasing huge quantities of PCB in the environment.

PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) are chemical substances created by men.

They’are said to be dangerous for animals and humans and to be causing cancers.

EU PCB limits

The maximum PCB limit in Wallonia is 100 NG/m3 (nanogram per cubic meter).

There are no PCB limits in NL, Germany and France according to the documentary.

Sweden and Denmark have a limit of 20.000 ng/m3; much higher than in Wallonia. 


The TV journalists tried to meet the metal recyclers but none of them wanted to speak to the journalists.

In fact, a boycott against the journalists had been organised by the metal recyclers.

Note of the redaction – the same happened in the bioplastics industry. Members of European Bioplastics (EU bioplastics sector organisation) have encouraged to boycott Telling the truth doesn’t always makes you popular (European Bioplastics Calls for a Boycott)

Comet Sambre

One of the biggest metal recycler in Wallonia is “Comet Sambre SA” (Comet Group).

They have 380 employees and shred 300 tons of metals per hour.

Comet Sambre is considered as a success story of the circular economy.

The Walloon Region and the Belgian Federal state are both shareholder of this company.

The company also receives lots of regional funding and subsidies.

“Comet Sambre SA” is the biggest polluter of PCB in the EU according to the journalists.

The PCB levels around the Comet Sambre facility were measured and reached 179.000 ng / m3.

The highest concentration of PCB ever measured.

The journalists interviewed the Walloon Minister of the Environment; Celine Tellier, from the Belgian ecological party “Ecolo”.

The minister didn’t know Wallonia was shareholder of “Comet Sambre SA”.

The Walloon region had been advised by specialists to implement some kind of biomonitoring (to test PCB levels in employees and local population).

The Minister didn’t thought it was necessary to do so.

The journalists decide to test the local population on chemical pollutants and PCB.

They collected hair samples of the villagers living close by the “Comet Sambre SA” and sent them to the labs to measure the PCB levels.

The PCB levels of the local villagers were 3 times higher than other populations not exposed to PCB pollution.

Today, 5 on 7 Walloon metal recyclers are accused of releasing too much PCB in the atmosphere.

The Walloon region doesn’t seem to be taking action on this.

The devil is in the detail of the law.

The authorities look at the annual released PCB quantities.

Lab Testing gives the PCB release quantities in ng/m3 but the metal recyclers also have to report the number of hours that the industrial shredder has been active.

The Châtelet site of Comet Sambre declared 650 hours of activity in 2020.

The industry average was 1121 hours per year in 2020.

Personal Remarks

When will ecological crimes be taken seriously and sanctioned by authorities?

Recycling is pushed forward by the Circular Economy; but what is the real environmental impact of recycling?

CO2 emissions is the current guiding principle of the Circular Economy; but what about other pollutants?

Can we rely on “auto-control” mechanisms or should we rely upon good old fashioned government controls?

How do you deal with conflict of interests when companies are owned or funded by governments?

Why is there still a difference regarding “maximum limits” of pollutants between EU member states?


Investigation – La Une

Les victimes de la pollution aux PCB : et maintenant on fait quoi ?

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