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United Kingdom

Waste (United Kingdom)

Why should we care about this issue

Waste Waste
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Waste represents a problem and an opportunity. Currently, production, consumption and waste disposal patterns in the UK are incompatible with sustainable living. Where waste ends up in landfill, the biodegradable part generates methane, yet valuable energy is used for extracting and processing new raw materials.

To reduce waste generation and increase sustainability, we need to make products with fewer natural resources and break the link between economic growth and waste growth. Most products should be re-used or their materials recycled. Energy should be recovered from other wastes where possible to obtain the maximum benefit.

The dividends of applying the waste hierarchy[1] will not just be environmental. We can save money by making products with fewer natural resources, and we can reduce the costs of waste treatment and disposal. Waste is a drag on the economy and business productivity. Improving the efficiency with which we use natural resources can generate new opportunities and jobs.

[1] The waste hierarchy is a framework that sets out the order in which options for waste management should be considered, based on environmental impact. This involves prevention of waste by meeting our needs using fewer natural resources followed by reuse of products consumed or their materials recycled. Energy should be recovered from remaining wastes where possible and disposal to landfill should only be necessary for small amounts of residual material.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

In the UK, in 2008, total waste generation was estimated at 334 million tonnes (mt). This is a decrease from 372mt in 2004 and 346mt in 2006. In 2008, the largest contributing sector was construction, demolition and excavation (101mt), followed by mining and quarrying (86mt), commercial and industrial sectors (67mt), household sources (32mt) and the remaining arisings combined (48mt).

In terms of composition, the bulk of the material was mineral waste (59 per cent), followed by general[1] and mixed waste (21 per cent), metal and scrap (11 per cent), paper and card (4 per cent) and animal & vegetable wastes (4 per cent), followed by chemical and other wastes[2] (2 per cent). 

Of the total waste managed[3] in the UK, in 2008, 48 per cent was deposited onto or into land, 45 per cent was recovered (excluding energy recovery), 5 per cent underwent land treatment or release into water and 2 per cent was incinerated on land (including with energy recovery).

Figure 1 Total UK waste generation by sector, 2004 to 2008

Figure 1 Total UK waste generation by sector, 2004 to 2008


Figure 2 Total UK waste management by method, 2004 to 2008

Figure 2 Total UK waste management by method, 2004 to 2008

In England alone, the amount of waste sent to landfill declined by 33 per cent between 2000/01 and 2008, from an estimated 79.9mt in 2000/01 to an estimated 53.8mt in 2008.

Additional UK waste data can be found on the Eurostat website though national data sources also provide useful information. England produces 81 per cent of the total waste generated in the UK, therefore national data for England has been incorporated below, along with accompanying links to national data for the rest of the UK.


Commercial & Industrial waste:

Commercial and industrial (C&I) waste generation in the UK has decreased between 2004 and 2008, from 81mt in 2004, to 76mt in 2006 and 67mt in 2008. In 2004 and 2006, C&I waste generation accounted for 22 per cent of total UK waste generation. This was reduced to 20 per cent in 2008 (see Eurostat).

There is limited UK C&I waste data available, so national sources are used. The last national survey of C&I waste in England was carried out by the Environment Agency in 2002/03 and estimated that commercial waste amounted to 30.3mt and industrial waste to 37.6mt. Note these figures include primary waste generated by commerce and industry only, which accounts principally for differences between survey results and the larger waste totals reported under the Waste Statistics Regulation. Defra is carrying out a survey of C&I waste in England to report by late 2010.


Figure 3 Commercial & industrial survey results analysis, England, 2002/03

Figure 3 Commercial & industrial survey results analysis, England, 2002/03

Limited inferences from recent smaller scale studies in the North West (2005/06 and 2008/09) and Wales (2007), point to changes in the pattern of waste production, with a possible decrease in industrial waste arisings countered by a rise in commercial arisings. On the management side, there is evidence to suggest the tonnage of C&I waste sent to landfill has decreased, with more waste handled by transfer stations and treatment facilities.

For further national C&I data see below:

England                      Wales                         Scotland                     Northern Ireland

Municipal waste:

The amount of municipal waste generated in the UK, in 2008, was 544kg per person, 4 per cent higher than the EU27 average of 524kg per person. The gap between the UK and the EU27 average has been closing year on year since 2004 when the UK figure was 18 per cent higher than the EU27 average.

Figure 4 Municipal waste generated in the UK, 1997 to 2008, kg per capita

Figure 4 Municipal waste generated in the UK, 1997 to 2008, kg per capita

Between 1995 and 2008, the percentage of municipal waste generated that is recycled/composted in the UK has increased from 7 per cent in 1995 to 36 per cent in 2008. The percentage of municipal waste generated that is sent to landfill has decreased overall from 83 per cent in 1995 to 53 per cent in 2008.

Figure 5 Municipal waste management in the UK, 1995 to 2008.

Figure 5 Municipal waste management in the UK, 1995 to 2008.



Further data on municipal waste in the UK can be found on the Eurostat website.

In England in 2008/09 a total of 178kg of household waste was recycled per person per year, an increase from 11kg per person per year in 1991/92. Green recycling (composting) has increased from 1.6 per cent in 1997/98 to 14.8 per cent in 2008/09, whilst recycling of other materials (dry recycling) has increased from 6.6 per cent to 22.8 per cent in the same period.

Food waste:

Within the municipal waste sector, total food and drink waste generated by households in the UK is estimated at 8.3mt per year. This is equivalent to 330kg per year for each household in the UK, or just over 6kg per household per week.

Of this total, 5.8mt per year (70 per cent) is collected by Local Authorities, mainly in the residual waste stream (general bin) and food-waste kerbside collections. A further 1.8mt per year is disposed of via the sewer.

For more information on food and drink waste in the UK, see the WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) Household Food and Drink Waste report.

Figure 6 Weight of food & drink waste generated in the UK, split by disposal route

Figure 6 Weight of food & drink waste generated in the UK, split by disposal route

Construction, demolition and excavation waste:

Construction, demolition and excavation (C,D&E) waste also decreased between 2004 and 2008. Total UK generation of C,D&E waste amounted to 113mt in 2004 and then decreased to 110mt in 2006 and 101mt in 2008. C,D&E waste generation accounted for 30 per cent of total UK waste generation in 2008.

Data on C,D&E waste is also limited in availability so national data sources are widely used. In 2009, WRAP undertook an analysis of existing data, supplemented by original survey research, to provide estimates for the levels of arisings, use and disposal of the full range of C,D&E wastes in England in 2008. Prior to that study, the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) undertook surveys on C,D&E waste arisings and use in England, reporting on arisings and use of aggregates biennially between 1999 and 2005.

In 2008, total construction and demolition waste for England was estimated at 86.9 million tonnes[4], of which 53.6mt (62%) was recycled or recovered (both on and off site), 11.0mt (13%) was spread on exempt sites, and the remaining 22.4mt (26%) was sent to landfill (including backfilling at quarries, and landfill engineering) as waste.

Figure 7 Construction, Demolition & Excavation Waste management, England, 1999 to 2008

Figure 7 Construction, Demolition & Excavation Waste management, England, 1999 to 2008

The amount of construction and demolition waste generated in England has remained stable at about 90mt from 2001 to 2008.

For further national C,D&E waste information see the links below:

England (Defra)         England (WRAP)      Wales             Scotland         Northern Ireland

Packaging waste:

Within the UK waste stream, total packaging waste amounted to 10.2mt in 1998 before it decreased to 9.2mt in 1999. The total then increased steadily between 2001 and 2009, from 9.3mt in 2001 to 10.8mt in 2009. Total recovery and recycling of packaging in the UK has also increased from 3.3mt in 1998, 33 per cent of all packaging waste, to 7.2mt in 2009, 67 per cent of all packaging waste. Defra provide more information on the recovery and recycling of packaging in the UK.

Figure 8 Total packaging generation and recovery in the UK waste stream, 1998 to 2009

[1] Includes glass, rubber, plastic, wood, textiles, solidified/vitrified and sludge wastes.

[2] The term ‘other wastes’ includes healthcare wastes, batteries and accumulators.

[3] Figures for waste management do not necessarily equal those for waste generation, due to the manipulation of different data sources for each, some degree of weight loss through treatment (e.g. loss of water), and the exclusion from waste management totals of waste generated in the UK which is exported for treatment/disposal.

[4] Figure from WRAP analysis, which includes waste recovered/reused on site. The WRAP analysis was used to inform the England contribution to WSR figures, with the wastes recovered/reused on site aspect excluded as required under the Regulation. Consequently, the UK WSR figures quoted above and England figures are not comparable.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

A complex set of factors influence waste generation and it is difficult to identify clear cut drivers in isolation. For household waste arisings, demographics, the economy and public attitudes and behaviour are key drivers in the UK. For business, commercial imperatives to increase efficiency and value for money also additionally influence waste generation and management. Finally, policy response and cultural dynamics aim to intensify and incentivise resource efficiency and reduce waste. In turn, waste management causes pressure on the natural environment by producing greenhouse gas emissions.


Household waste drivers:


The changing age structure of the population

When assessing behaviour change with regard to household waste in the future, forecast demographic changes imply a marginal increase in the number of households with “poor” waste behaviour (e.g. younger, smaller households), and a marginal decrease in the number of households with “good” waste behaviour (in particular, households that grew up in the first few decades of the 20th century).

Changes in household size and composition

Also forecast is an increase in household waste arisings, as a consequence of reducing household occupancy levels. The underlying issue is that homes with fewer people generate more waste per person than larger families. The main drivers for low occupancy are people getting married and having children later in life, an aging population, increasing divorce rates and the affordability of homes.


In terms of household waste specifically, though demographic change influences the final levels of household waste arisings, other macro and behavioural drivers contribute to a greater extent. For example, in forecasts, it is assumed that the majority of waste results from the disposal of products that entered the household through purchases, so the rate of waste growth is affected by changes in economic growth. However, there is some evidence of the decoupling of household expenditure and waste arisings.

Household final consumption expenditure (HHFCE) is a measure of traditional consumer spending. Below, HHFCE is calculated as an index from the 1990 period. In the UK, between 1991 and 2007, the HHFCE index increased 63 per cent. Waste not recycled, also calculated as an index, broadly increased between 1990 and 2001 before declining to 2007. The total waste arising index increased 27 per cent between 1990 and 2002 and has since fluctuated around this level between 2002 and 2007.


Figure 9 Household final consumption expenditure and waste arising, UK, 1990 to 2007

Behavioural change:

Behavioural change can also impact on the amount of waste generated by households, as an outcome of policy intervention for example. General attitudes towards the environment can determine how much of the final product is wasted, composted or the length of time in which it is disposed of. Also, waste is increasingly seen as part of wider business resource efficiency, bringing economic and commercial as well as environmental benefits. 



Pressures: Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by the waste management sector have decreased since 1990. Between 1990 and 2008, UK GHG emissions from the waste management sector decreased by 57 per cent, from 52.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 1990 to 22.7MtCO2e in 2008. This includes emissions from waste sent to landfill, waste-water handling and waste incineration. In 2008, landfilled waste contributed 20.27MtCO2e, or 89 per cent of emissions from the waste management sector in the UK, waste-water handling contributed 9 per cent and waste incineration contributed 2 per cent.

Figure 10 GHG emissions from the waste management sector, UK, 1990 to 2008

Figure 10 GHG emissions from the waste management sector, UK, 1990 to 2008

In the UK, GHG emissions from landfill have decreased by 59 per cent between 1990 and 2008, from 49.8MtCO2e in 1990 to 20.2MtCO2e in 2008. Emissions from waste water handling have increased by 18 per cent over the same period from 1.7MtCO2e to 2.1MtCO2e and emissions from waste incineration have decreased by 2 per cent from 1.4 MtCO2e 1990 to 0.5 MtCO2e in 2008.

Further data on UK emissions of GHGs can be found on the DECC website.

Figure 11 GHG emissions from the waste management sector, by management type, UK, 1990 to 2008

Figure 11 GHG emissions from the waste management sector, by management type, UK, 1990 to 2008.



The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Significant progress has been made in diverting waste from landfill, increasing recycling rates and reducing GHG emissions from the waste management sector, suggesting that short term national targets will be met or exceeded. In the longer term, household waste projections forecast an increase in household waste generation.

Municipal waste:

Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) sent to landfill:

Targets outlined in the Landfill Directive state that total BMW sent to landfill must be reduced by (per cent of 1995 levels) 75 per cent for 2010, 50 per cent for 2013 and 35 per cent for 2020. The UK is currently on course to meet the 2010 target.

Household waste:


One of the targets in the Revised Waste Framework Directive is to increase the recycling, composting and reuse of household waste, as a percentage of total household waste, to 50 per cent by 2020. The current household recycling rate in England is 39.3 per cent for the period January 2009 to December 2009, an increase from 11.2 per cent in 2000/01. Major improvements have also been made elsewhere in the UK but as a whole, the UK is still behind many other European countries.

For more data on household waste, select a country from the below:

England                          Wales                              Scotland                              Northern Ireland

Greenhouse gas emissions:

The Government has set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by approximately 34 per cent by 2020 and by at least 80 per cent by 2050. Emissions from the waste management sector have fallen by 57 per cent since 1990, as measured by the UK greenhouse gas inventory. It is possible that further reductions will bring the total decrease in waste GHG emissions to 62 per cent since 1990. This is almost double the 34 per cent reduction target sought across all sectors of the UK economy.


Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Waste policy is a devolved matter in the UK, therefore in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the devolved administrations are responsible for strategy and policy relating to waste management. However, despite differences in the specifics of policy measures, national priorities for waste have been consistent in aiming to drive action further up the waste hierarchy, thus making a transition from the landfilling of waste, towards prevention, re-use and energy recovery, along with a reduction of GHG emissions from waste management. In addition there is the EU legislative framework which is a consistent policy driver across the UK. A recent change of administration in England means that specific English policy measures currently in place are liable to change to reflect the views and priorities of the new government. The England Waste Strategy 2007 was produced under a previous government and as such does not necessarily reflect the current administrations intended response. However, some of the major UK responses are set out below.

EU Directives:

In response to the EU Batteries Directive, laws were introduced in the UK in February 2010, to enforce battery recycling. Vendors of batteries weighing more than 32kg a year are required to take back used batteries, from the public, free of charge. Collection targets of 25 per cent by 2012 and 45 per cent by 2016 are to be reached. The Defra website provides details of the regulations introduced.

In response to the Landfill Directive and its targets for BMW to landfill, countries established national landfill allowance schemes. These place decreasing limits on the amount of BMW local authorities can landfill in order for the UK to meet its overall targets.

England: Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS).

Scotland: Landfill Allowance Scheme (LAS).

Wales: Landfill Allowance Scheme (LAS).

Northern Ireland: Landfill Allowance Scheme (NILAS).

The Revised Waste Framework Directive, currently in transposition phase, introduces new targets for household recycling and construction and demolition recovery. Countries are currently considering what policy responses may be required to ensure these targets are met.

Climate Change Act 2008:

The Climate Change Act 2008 establishes a long term framework to tackle climate change, through legally binding emissions reduction targets. The world’s first ‘carbon budgets’ have been introduced in the UK to meet the targets set. A ‘carbon budget’ is a cap on the total quantity of GHG emissions emitted in the UK over a specified time. DECC provide more information on carbon budgets and the levels of emissions reductions that are to be achieved.

In the long term, analysis is being undertaken to identify the decisions necessary to ensure that UK greenhouse gas emissions are cut by at least 80 per cent (from 1990 levels) by 2050. For each sector, including the waste sector, analysis has been undertaken to develop different emissions and energy trajectories to explore different approaches to decarbonisation, where the UK meets its greenhouse gas emissions targets and maintains energy security. The aim is not to identify a particular pathway to 2050 but to develop an analytical tool that the Government uses to develop strategy going forward. For more information on the 2050 roadmap analysis, see the annex of the Energy Market Assessment.


National Waste Plans & Strategy:

Each of the devolved administrations has a waste strategy outlining targets to achieve more sustainable waste management. This involves conversion from relying on the landfill of waste, to waste prevention and increasingly, the viewing of waste as a resource.

England: The England Waste Strategy 2007 was produced under a previous government and as such does not necessarily reflect the current administrations intended response. A review of waste policy is currently underway and the results are due in Spring 2011.

Wales: Towards Zero Waste: The Overarching Waste Strategy, 2010

Northern Ireland: Waste Management Strategy 2006 to 2020

Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan 2010

Landfill Tax:

Landfill Tax is a tax on the disposal of waste by way of landfill. It aims to encourage waste producers to produce less waste and recover more value from waste i.e. through recycling. It means that it is becoming more and more expensive to send waste to landfill. 


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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