Resource efficiency and waste

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Page Last modified 16 Feb 2017, 02:07 PM
The global environmental problems we face today are largely the result of human overexploitation of natural resources, including (fossil) fuels, minerals, water, land and biodiversity. It has become increasingly clear that Europe's prevailing model of economic development — based on high resource use, waste generation and pollution — cannot be sustained in the long term. Today, the European Union (EU) is heavily reliant on imports and we need twice the total land area of the EU to meet our resource demands. Many of the resources are only in use for a short period of time, or they are lost to the economy through being landfilled or downcycled (involving a decrease of quality during recovery operations).

This does not only affect the environment but also our economic competitiveness. The solution is obvious but not straightforward: achieving economic growth with fewer natural resources, or, in other words, doing more with less. Improving our resource efficiency is, therefore, a central element of long-term environmental policy, as reflected in strategic documents such as the Seventh Environment Action programme (7th EAP), the EU Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy.

Introduction

Europe's economy depends on an uninterrupted flow of natural resources and materials, including water, crops, timber, metals, minerals and energy carriers, with imports providing a substantial proportion of these materials. Increasingly, this dependence could be a source of vulnerability, as global competition for natural resources increases.

Many natural resources are unevenly distributed globally, making access and prices more volatile and increasing the potential for conflict. Uncertain and unstable prices can also disrupt the sectors that are dependent on these resources, forcing companies to lay people off, defer investment or stop providing goods and services.

At the same time, rapid increases in the extraction and exploitation of natural resources have a wide range of negative environmental impacts in Europe and beyond. Air, water and soil pollution, acidification of ecosystems, biodiversity loss, climate change and waste generation put immediate, medium- and long-term economic and social well-being at risk.

Increasing resource efficiency is essential to sustain socio-economic progress in a world of finite resources and ecosystem capacity, but it is not sufficient. After all, increasing efficiency is only an indication that output is growing more than resource use and emissions. It does not guarantee an absolute reduction in environmental pressures to levels that are sustainable in Europe and globally in the long term.

In assessing the sustainability of European systems of production and consumption, it is therefore necessary to move beyond measuring whether production is increasing faster than resource use and related pressures ('relative decoupling'). Rather, there is a need to assess whether there is evidence of 'absolute decoupling', with production increasing while resource use declines.

In addition to assessing the relationship of resource use to economic output, it is also important to evaluate whether the environmental impacts resulting from society's resource use are decreasing ('impact decoupling').

EU policies on the topic

 The 7th EAP identifies stepping up resource efficiency as one of its three key objectives to meet the 2050 vision of ‘living well within the limits of the planet’:

  • to protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital;
  • to turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy;
  • to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being.

These objectives are indeed closely linked and subject to different, but related, policy frameworks, such as the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the Roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy.

Another cluster of policies aims to shift away from the linear 'take-make-consume-dispose' pattern of growth, towards a circular model that relies on maintaining the utility of products, components and materials and retaining their value in the economy. As noted in the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, this will require changes across supply chains, including in product design, business models, consumption choices, and the prevention and management of waste. The EU Waste legislation is one its main policy drivers.

EEA activities

The EEA analyses material flows and waste statistics, and produces related indicators and assessments. Policy progress is analysed in three parallel reporting series on waste management, waste prevention and resource efficiency. An overarching perspective is provided in annual circular economy reports and contributions to integrated assessments, such as the EEA’s European Environment — State and Outlook 2020 (SOER2020).

Bespoke analyses of selected aspects of resource efficiency policy, such as monitoring concepts, environmental targets, market-based instruments and other intervention strategies are produced on a regular basis.

Stakeholder interaction and capacity building related to these assessments is an important element of the work, with regular EIONET meetings and workshops with the national reference centres on waste and on resource efficient economy and the environment.

 Outlook

Current work is primarily geared towards improving the evidence base on resource efficiency, circular economy and waste. Contributions to the SOER2020 are foreseen, with an emphasis on thematic information (waste and resource use) as well as systemic analysis of the transition to a circular economy. 

 

 

Geographic coverage

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100