Recycling of municipal waste

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 30 Jun 2020
12 min read
Photo: © Andrei Marin, My City /EEA


Indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Recycling of municipal waste


Green triangle: improving trend


Green triangle: improving trend

50 % of selected materials in household and similar waste to be recycled by each EU Member State — Waste Framework Directive

Stable or unclear trend

 The amount of municipal waste being recycled has been steadily increasing. The outlook for all Member States meeting the 2020 target is mixed. Several Member States have achieved, or are well on course to achieving the target. However, the target is some way off for others.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) contains the objective that waste is safely managed as a resource — this should help Europe to extract more value from the resources it uses, reduce the environmental impacts associated with waste management and create jobs. In this regard it is important to further increase municipal waste recycling rates. The Waste Framework Directive sets a target of 50 % of municipal waste (specific types of household and similar wastes) to be prepared for reuse and recycled by 2020 in EU Member States. The amount of municipal waste being recycled has been steadily increasing in Europe thanks to investments in appropriate collection and handling, financial incentives to move away from landfilling of waste and landfill bans. The performance of EU Member States on the recycling of municipal waste varies, although the comparability of data is hindered by variation in data collection and definitions. Despite a strong performance from some countries and clear progress being made in nearly all since 2004, in a number of Member States significant efforts are still needed to achieve the 2020 target.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP states that, by 2020, waste should be 'safely managed as a resource', 'landfilling [is] limited to residual (i.e. non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste)' and 'energy recovery [is] limited to non-recyclable materials' (EU, 2013). The overarching logic guiding EU policy on waste is the waste hierarchy, which prioritises waste prevention, followed by preparing for reuse, recycling, other recovery and finally disposal, including landfilling as the least desirable option. This briefing presents trends on the recycling of municipal waste. An improvement in the proportion of waste that is recycled indicates that waste management is moving up the waste hierarchy. Recycling allows the generation of more value from resources and creates jobs. It can also reduce the demand for raw materials and the environmental impacts associated with meeting this demand (AIRS_PO2.1, 2018).

Policy targets and progress

The EU has introduced multiple waste policies and targets since the 1990s.

The Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2008, 2018a) sets a target of 50 % of municipal waste to be recycled and prepared for reuse by 2020 in EU Member States, for at least four categories (i.e. paper, glass, metals, plastics) of waste. Countries can choose from four alternative calculation methods to measure progress towards the target (EU, 2011). In December 2015, the European Commission published 'Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy' (EC, 2015), also known as the Circular Economy Package. The package sets out a large number of initiatives and led to the adoption of new targets: 55 % of municipal waste to be recycled and prepared for reuse by 2025, 60 % by 2030 and 65 % by 2035 (EU, 2018a). These targets are based on just one calculation method (more ambitious than the one used in Figures 1 and 2 of this briefing), although some countries have the option of altering the timescale.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the overall rate of recycling (material recycling, composting and digestion) for the EU increased from 31 % in 2004 to 45 % in 2016. The increase was from 28 % to 41 % if data from non-EU, EEA member countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey) are added to the aggregated EU country data. This improvement comes from a combination of a reduction in the amount of municipal waste generated and an increase in the total quantity undergoing material recycling, composting and digestion. This increase is viewed as one of the success stories of environmental policy in Europe so far (EEA, 2016b).

Around two thirds of the progress in enhanced recycling rates between 2004 and 2016 was primarily because of more material recycling. Increased composting and digestion was responsible for the remaining third (EEA calculation based on Eurostat, 2018a).


Figure 1. Proportion of municipal waste treated by different methods, EU

The treatment shares relate to waste generated. Recycling of municipal waste includes material recycling and composting/anaerobic digestion and might also include preparing for reuse. Data for 2004-2006 exclude Croatia. 'Other' includes, inter alia, mass losses during pre-treatment, storage and waste generated but not collected.


Figure 1 shows the trend in municipal waste recycling in the context of other municipal waste treatment methods. It is apparent that, as a whole, the EU is moving away from landfilling but that the share of incineration is also growing, with a 57 % increase between 2004 and 2016, compared with a 48 % increase for recycling (including composting and digestion).

Country level information

Over the examined period (2004-2016), some countries show high (and sustained) levels of municipal waste recycling and many others show strong improvement (Figure 2). Despite this, as shown in Figure 2, the low rates of recycling and/or slow progress made in some countries, suggest that not every country is likely to achieve the Waste Framework Directive target by 2020. Analysis by the European Commission (EC, 2018) and by the ETC/WMGE for the EEA (ETC/WMGE, 2018) indicate that 14 EU Member States are at risk of not meeting the target.

Figure 2. Municipal waste recycling rate (including composting and digestion) by country

The recycling rate is calculated as the percentage of municipal waste generated that is recycled, composted and anaerobically digested, and might also include preparing for reuse. Changes in reporting methodology mean that 2016 data are not fully comparable with 2004 data for Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Italy, Norway, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. 2005 data were used instead of 2004 data for Poland because of changes in methodology. On account of data availability, instead of 2004 data, 2003 data were used for Iceland, 2007 data for Croatia, and 2006 data for Serbia; and instead of 2016 data, 2014 data were used for Ireland, and 2015 data for Montenegro. 2016 data for Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovenia and Turkey include estimates.

There were large differences in performance among those countries with the highest and lowest recycling rates. Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Slovenia recycled at least half of their municipal waste in 2016. The highest increases in recycling rates between 2004 and 2016 occurred in Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Latvia, ranging from 46 (Lithuania) to 20 (Latvia) percentage points. Overall, in 19 out of 35 countries, the increase in recycling rates was at least 10 percentage points during this period. Meanwhile, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Malta and Serbia, the very low proportion of recycled municipal waste barely changed. Comparability of 2004 and 2016 data is limited for Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Italy, Norway, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain because of methodological improvements in data collection.

While most of the recycled waste is collected separately, another part comes from extracting recyclables from mixed municipal waste in pre-treatment plants. This usually results in lower quality recycled materials and may enhance the risk of contaminating material cycles and the environment. There has been an increase in the capacity for such pre-treatment of mixed municipal waste in some countries (ETC/WMGE, 2018).  In Figure 2, the increases in the recycling rates in some of the countries may, therefore, not fully translate into strong benefits for the environment.

The recycling rates shown in Figure 2 cannot be used to assess EU Member States' progress against the target of 50 % of waste to be recycled and prepared for reuse set by the Waste Framework Directive, because Member States can choose between four different methods to calculate compliance with the target (EU, 2011). Figure 2 shows recycling rates calculated following the most demanding method, i.e. recycled and composted/digested municipal waste as a share of total generated municipal waste.

There is a clear link between increasing recycling rates and declining rates of landfilling. In countries with high municipal waste recycling rates, landfilling is declining much faster than recycling is growing, as waste management strategies usually move from landfilling towards a combination of recycling and incineration, and in many cases also mechanical–biological treatment (EEA, 2013). 

Almost without exception, the countries that are performing better in terms of recycling have a wider range of measures and instruments in place than the poorer performing ones. Measures have included landfill bans on biodegradable waste or non-pre-treated municipal waste; mandatory separate collection of municipal waste types, especially biowastes; well-functioning extended producer responsibility schemes; and economic instruments such as landfill and incineration taxes and waste collection fees that strongly encourage recycling (such as pay-as-you-throw schemes). Other factors that can also contribute to high recycling rates in the countries include high levels of national environmental awareness as well as effective implementation of waste management legislation by the country (EEA, 2016a).

Outlook beyond 2020 

The 7th EAP describes a number of steps that are required to achieve its objective of waste being managed as a resource. The Waste Framework (EU, 2018a), Landfill (EU, 2018b) and Packaging and Packaging Waste (EU, 2018c) Directives were amended in 2018 to include, inter alia, a number of new targets and measures beyond 2020, which should move the EU towards this objective:

  • targets to increase preparing for reuse and recycling of municipal waste to at least 55 % of municipal waste by 2025, 60 % by 2030 and 65 % by 2035;
  • targets to increase recycling of packaging waste to at least 65 % by 31 December 2025 and 70 % by 31 December 2030;
  • a target to reduce landfill to a maximum of 10 % of generated municipal waste by 2035;
  • a ban on landfilling of waste suitable for recycling effective from 2030;
  • mandatory separate collection of bio-waste by 31 December 2023 and of textiles and hazardous waste from households by 1st of January 2025;
  • minimum requirements for all extended producer responsibility schemes;
  • simplified and improved definitions and harmonised calculation methods for recycling rates throughout the EU.

The success of these targets and measures will be key to the medium- to long-term prospects for achieving an innovative circular economy in which nothing is wasted, as envisaged by 2050 in the 7th EAP.

About the indicator 

This indicator focuses on the recycling of municipal waste. Despite the fact that it represents only around 10 % (Eurostat, 2018b) of total waste generation in the EU, municipal waste is very visible and its reduction has the potential to reduce environmental impact, not only in the consumption and waste phases but also over the whole life cycle of the products consumed. Municipal waste consists to a large extent of waste generated by households, but it may also include similar wastes generated by small businesses and public institutions that are also collected by municipalities.

Recycling of waste is defined as any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances, whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material (e.g. by composting or digesting) but does not include energy recovery or reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations (EU, 2008).

The recycling rate is calculated as the percentage of municipal waste generated that is subsequently recycled (including composting and digesting). There are limitations in the comparability of data between countries and over time. There are also variations in what countries classify as municipal waste and, in some cases, these definitions have changed over time. In addition, there are also variations in the calculation method, for example whether or not the weight of material collected but discarded during the recycling process is included and how inputs and outputs of pre-treatment are allocated.

Finally, the indicator shows the recycling rate of municipal waste calculated using a consistent method, although Member States can choose between four different methods to monitor recycling rates in order to meet the target of 50 % of waste to be recycled and prepared for reuse (EEA, 2015). 

Footnotes and references

EC, 2005, Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 'Taking sustainable use of resources forward: A thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste' (COM(2005) 666 final).

EC, 2015, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 'Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy' (COM(2015) 614 final).

EC, 2018, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the implementation of EU waste legislation, including the early warning report for Member States at risk of missing the 2020 preparing for re-use/recycling target on municipal waste (COM(2018) 656 final).

EEA, 2013, Managing municipal solid waste — A review of achievements in 32 European countries, EEA Report No 2/2013, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2015, Waste — Municipal solid waste generation and management, SOER briefing, European Environment Agency ( accessed 1 March 2018.

EEA, 2016a, 'Municipal waste management across European countries', European Environment Agency ( accessed 1 March 2018.

EEA, 2016b, ‘Waste recycling (CSI 052/WST 005)’, European Environment Agency ( accessed 15 November 2018.

ETC/WMGE, 2018, Scenarios for municipal waste recycling based on the European Reference Model on Municipal Waste. A contribution to the first Early Warning report, European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green Economy (ETC/WMGE) working paper ( accessed 16 November 2018.

EU, 2008, Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on waste and repealing certain directives (OJ L 312, 22.11.2008, p. 3-30).

EU, 2011, Commission Decision 2011/753/EU of 18 November 2011 establishing rules and calculation methods for verifying compliance with the targets set in Article 11(2) of Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council notified under document C(2011) 8165 (OJ L 310, 25.11.2011, p. 11-16).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', Annex, paragraph 43(d) (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171-200).

EU, 2018a, Directive (EU) 2018/851 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (OJ L 150, 14.06.2018, p. 109-140).

EU, 2018b, Directive (EU) 2018/850 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 amending Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste (OJ L 150, 14.06.2018, p. 100-108).

EU, 2018c, Directive (EU) 2018/852 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste (OJ L 150, 14.06.2018, p. 141-154).

Eurostat, 2018a, Municipal waste by waste operations (env_wasmun) ( accessed 1 March 2018.

Eurostat, 2018b, 'Municipal waste statistics – statistics explained' ( accessed 1 March  2018.

AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO2.1, 2018, Resource efficiency, European Environment Agency.

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency


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