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In this edition of Faces of EUMEPS, we feature Gerrit van Veen from the Netherlands. Gerrit is the Managing Director of De Vries Recycling, a company with a rich legacy in the recycling industry. Born and raised in the fishing village of Urk, Gerrit shares his journey from helping his grandfather recycle EPS fish boxes to leading a company now a global player in the EPS market. This interview delves into his family's sustainable legacy, innovative recycling practices, and vision for the future of the EPS sector, both in Europe and locally in the Netherlands.


Your family has been in the recycling industry for over two decades. Could you share how the vision and passion for recycling were instilled in you from a young age by your grandfather and father?

I was born and raised in Urk, a fishing village near the IJsselmeer. Urk is known for its close-knit community and strong work ethic. I had no relatives with companies or high positions in the business world. In the 90s, my grandfather, as a middle-aged man, had to accept redundancy from the fish auction in Urk, his former employer. Because of that, my grandfather was forced to search for another way to generate an income and started investigating the recycling market, an emerging business at that time. He found out that there was a demand for recycled polystyrene in China. Urk, as a seafood hub in the Netherlands, imports a lot of salmon and other species, all packed in EPS to keep the fish fresh. After a period of investigation, Kras Recycling in Volendam, another fishing town in the Netherlands, was found as a partner. They had already started with EPS collection and advised my grandfather on machinery and supplied an EPS compactor. De Vries Recycling was finally established in 1996. At that time, I was a boy of 9 years old. After school and on weekends, I helped my grandfather with cleaning the collected EPS fish boxes for further recycling.


De Vries Recycling is noted for turning EPS waste into high-quality raw materials. Can you elaborate on the technological advancements that have enabled this transformation?

In the neighbourhood, we collect EPS in loose form and the material is compacted in our own compacting department in Urk. This step is necessary for further processing at our extrusion site. Collection of loose EPS further away is difficult because of the transport costs. That’s why we also provide EPS compactors to companies that are not close by. After compacting, the volume reduces up to 40:1[1]. This significantly reduces transport costs and makes it economically viable to collect material from all over the world. In our state-of-the-art extrusion factory, we shred, clean, dry, and extrude the compacted EPS into the highest possible quality recycled general-purpose polystyrene granulate (r-GPPS). Our end product approximates virgin polystyrene and is perfectly suitable for the production of circular extruded polystyrene insulation panels.


De Vries stands for a “closed-loop upcycling process.” Could you explain how this system works and its benefits to both the environment and your business partners?

After the collection of the EPS, De Vries transforms the material into r-GPPS raw material. The r-GPPS is used in the production of XPS insulation panels. XPS has a higher value than EPS, so we can claim the process as upcycling. After the lifecycle of XPS, De Vries can collect the XPS waste and, after the recycling process, the material is turned into r-GPPS again. The r-GPPS can be used for EPS or XPS production again. We can repeat this cycle over and over again.

As De Vries Recycling has grown into a global player in the EPS market, how do you balance international demands with your commitment to local sustainability and community impacts?

For every kilogram of EPS recycled, we save CO2 for the planet. For the fish industry and recycling companies in the Netherlands and abroad, De Vries offers the best solution for their used polystyrene packaging. Because of the offered compensation for every delivered kilogram, companies are willing to separate the polystyrene from their general waste. Offering commercial remuneration is the best way to get the industry in motion and create willingness to invest in separating and recycling. Our process is optimised to reduce the carbon footprint as much as possible. In recent years, we invested in several energy-saving technologies. For example, we installed solar panels to produce green electricity. De Vries uses geothermal energy for the recycling process and groundwater to cool down the granules after extruding. This year, our calculated electricity saving is 900,000 kWh because of our green investments. Besides that, in the Netherlands, environmental legislation is very strict. The Operation Clean Sweep® initiative is a good measure to save plastic from the environment. We fully support this idea and have taken several measures to prevent the loss of plastic granules in our operations.


What have been some of the most significant challenges you've faced in scaling up recycling processes and what opportunities do you see for the future of the EPS recycling industry?

The biggest challenge is to keep the operational costs and overhead manageable. As a recycler, we must take a lot of steps to arrive at an end-product, including collection, cleaning, shredding, compacting, and extruding. The costs are increasing every year. Salary, insurance, transportation, energy, and maintenance are a broad selection of costs we must deal with. In the end, we need to compete with virgin polystyrene. If we have a higher sales price in comparison with virgin material, we don’t sell a single kilogram.


You emphasise long-term partnerships. How do you foster these relationships and what do you look for in a partner when aiming to promote sustainability in the recycling sector?

Our motto is to establish long-term relationships with suppliers and clients. Being in the market only when there are positive margins is not sustainable. Relations need to count on you all year round. Waste streams are generated continuously, so we need to be always online. In a good situation, this is a win-win for both parties because our production runs 24 hours a day, so we need to be assured of a steady feedstock.


As a member of EUMEPS, De Vries Recycling is part of a larger community dedicated to promoting EPS solutions across Europe. Could you share some of the collaborative initiatives that De Vries has been involved in with EUMEPS, particularly those that aim to enhance sustainability and innovation within the EPS industry?

EUMEPS is indispensable for our branch. Showing the irreplaceability of EPS is more important than ever before. My grandfather started with EPS recycling in 1996, and since the beginning, people have talked about replacements for EPS. There are many lobbies from other packaging solutions or insulation materials. Together we need to propagate the strength and benefits of EPS. Its insulation properties are unbeatable, and for keeping fish fresh, there is no better solution than an EPS fish box. And what about its recyclability? ES is 100% recyclable, which is better than many other materials. Keeping success stories in the market and sharing them as much as possible on social media is one of our responsibilities.


EUMEPS actively engages with EU regulators to shape the regulatory landscape around EPS materials. How does De Vries Recycling contribute to these efforts and what specific policy changes or developments do you advocate for to support the recycling sector?

De Vries is very grateful that EUMEPS engages with the EU regulators. It is also necessary in the current world in which we live. To keep "cowboys" out of the market and to professionalise as much as we can, it’s a good thing to have legislation and regulation. De Vries was recently audited by the Environmental Agency and has received the R3 status. De Vries Recycling shows that there is a proven recycling process for EPS following EU compliance. Waste becomes raw material at our facility.


Being part of EUMEPS provides an excellent platform for sharing knowledge and best practices. Could you discuss how De Vries Recycling leverages this opportunity to both learn from and educate other members about advancements and efficiencies in EPS recycling processes?

By giving all members, a voice on the EUMEPS platform, we can learn from each other’s stories. It also keeps the EPS branch alive. Together we can make a stand against other branches. We can’t work individually. We need each other to survive in these hectic and challenging times.


As the CEO, what aspect of your work gives you the most satisfaction, and where do you see De Vries Recycling in the next ten years in terms of innovation and sustainability?

Contacting and doing business with all the relations I have come to know over the last 20 years is one of the daily things I enjoy the most. I grew up in the EPS business and there is no other work field I know better. Using experience and knowledge makes De Vries successful. We never sit still, and I personally love technology, so we try to develop and optimise our processes continuously. Predicting the future is difficult, but when we see chances to improve or grow, we will take them.


Gerrit van Veen's story is a strong example of the power of innovation, sustainability, and community commitment. From its humble beginnings in a small fishing village, De Vries Recycling has grown into a significant contributor to the circular economy, demonstrating the endless possibilities of EPS recycling. Gerrit's dedication to promoting sustainable practices and fostering long-term partnerships underscores the industry's potential to meet EU climate and recycling goals. As part of the EUMEPS community, De Vries Recycling continues to lead by example, advocating for the irreplaceability and recyclability of EPS. This journey, deeply rooted in family values and innovative spirit, inspires us all to pursue sustainable solutions for a greener future.

[1] When we say, "the volume reduces up to 40:1 after compacting," we mean that the material's volume is reduced by up to 40 times. For example, if you start with 40 cubic metres of uncompressed material, compacting it can reduce its volume to just 1 cubic metre. This significant reduction in volume decreases transportation costs, making it economically feasible to collect and transport the material from various locations worldwide.