Waste generation

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 14 Dec 2018
12 min read
Waste generation


Indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Waste generation in Europe (excluding major mineral wastes) — absolute and per capita levels


Red triangle



Red triangle

Reduce absolute and per capita waste generation  — 7th EAP

Stable or unclear trend

The past trend (2010-2016) shows an increase in waste generation. The outlook towards 2020 remains, however, uncertain since the examined past time series is short and the increase relates mostly to just one data point (2014-2016).

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) states that, by 2020, absolute and per capita waste generation should be in decline. A society that meets its needs while producing less waste is more resource efficient, with lower environmental risks from waste management. The total amount of waste generated, excluding major mineral wastes, is used as the indicator to track progress towards a reduction in waste generation. The amount of this waste in the EU increased by 5.1 % in absolute amounts and by 3.6 % per capita between 2010 and 2016. The key driver behind the increase in waste generation seems to be the increase in the generation of secondary waste, triggered by a move away from landfilling towards recycling and incineration. The prospects of waste generation declining by 2020 are uncertain as the increase in waste generation is associated mainly with only one data point (2014-2016) and because there are methodological uncertainties (short time series — only four data points — and some data collection improvements in waste statistics) related to the past trend. There is, however, a risk that waste generation continues to increase in line with economic growth. On the other hand, there is an expectation that the measures in the Circular Economy Package will contribute to a reduction in waste generation in the longer term. 

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP includes an objective that, by 2020, absolute waste and per capita waste generation are in decline and waste is managed safely as a resource (EU, 2013). The waste hierarchy is the central framework for EU and national waste policies. This hierarchy gives the highest priority to waste prevention, followed by preparing for reuse, recycling, other recovery and finally disposal. Reducing the amount of waste generated means that there is less waste to manage and also, potentially, that the demand for material and energy resources and associated environmental impacts has been reduced (AIRS_PO2.1, 2018). This briefing examines the trends in waste generation by using the total amount of waste generated, excluding major mineral wastes, as an indicator. For terminology and rationale of choice, see the ‘About the indicator’ section at the end of the briefing.

Policy targets and progress

The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe contains several waste-related milestones to be met by 2020, including one that requires waste generated per capita to be in absolute decline (EC, 2011). 

Waste prevention and the use of waste as a resource is becoming increasingly important, not only in environmental policy but also in industrial and raw materials policy. In December 2015, the European Commission published ‘Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy’ (EC, 2015), otherwise known as the Circular Economy Package. Unlike the traditional linear take–make–consume–dispose approach, a circular economy seeks to respect planetary boundaries by increasing the proportion of renewable or recyclable resources while reducing the consumption of raw materials. Approaches such as eco-design and sharing, reuse, repair and refurbishing will play a significant role in maintaining the utility of products and components, and reducing the generation of waste (EEA, 2016, 2017, 2018).

The Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2008) obliges EU Member States to adopt and implement waste prevention programmes. The revised Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2018) strengthens this requirement but does not introduce binding quantified targets for waste prevention. A review of available programmes indicates that countries use a broad range of measures with a focus on information-based instruments and, to a lesser extent, regulatory and economic instruments. A total of 17 out of 27 waste prevention programmes analysed include quantitative targets (EEA, 2015).

Figure 1. Generation of waste, excluding major mineral wastes, EU

NoteThe data were extracted on 12 October 2018. The 2016 data are Eurostat estimates.

The total amount of waste generated in the EU, excluding major mineral wastes, increased by 5.1 % between 2010 and 2016 (Figure 1)[1]. The total amount of waste, excluding major mineral wastes, increased by 6.9 % over the same period when Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey — the four other EEA member countries for which data are available — were added to the EU total (EEA calculations based on Eurostat, 2018a).

In 2016, the highest absolute levels of waste generation (excluding major mineral wastes) in the EU were recorded for the water and waste sector, for households, and for the manufacturing sector.

Between 2010 and 2016, there were some shifts in waste generation between sectors in the EU. Most prominently, waste generated in the water and waste sector increased by 38 %, while in the energy and extraction sector it increased by 2 %. Over the same period, waste generation decreased by 6 % in the services, manufacturing and construction sectors and by 3 % in the agriculture, forestry and fishing, and households sectors.

The waste includes secondary waste, which is mainly generated in the ‘water and waste sector’. The increase in secondary waste seems to be the main factor in the increasing overall trend in waste generation in the 2010-2016 period. This waste is generated during the treatment of waste and comprises, for example, sorting residues, sludges and incineration ashes. More complex waste management such as recycling and incineration usually results in more secondary waste. The EU is moving away from landfilling of waste towards more recycling and incineration. For example, the share of landfilled waste (excluding major mineral wastes) decreased from 28 % to 24 % in the 2010-2016 period (EEA calculation based on Eurostat, 2018b). This development led to an increase in the amount of secondary waste generated, which increased from a share of 12 % of total waste in 2010 to 18 % in 2016, excluding major mineral wastes.

The overall improvements and the shifts between sectors are probably due to a combination of factors including efficiency improvements in production processes and management, and changes in the structure of the economy. The overall improvements and the shift between sectors may also be because of methodological changes in data collection and should therefore be interpreted with caution.

In conclusion, the overall amount of waste generated increased between 2010 and 2016. However, only four data points were used to assess the past trend — earlier data were available but were strongly influenced by adjustments in data collection methods and were therefore not used in this indicator. Methodological adjustments may have also influenced the four data points to some degree. Furthermore, the increase in waste generation is primarily associated with only one data point (2014-2016). As a result of these uncertainties, the outlook towards reducing waste generation within the period of the implementation of the 7th EAP (2014-2020) is also uncertain. There is nevertheless a risk that waste generation increases along with economic growth. On the other hand, measures in the Circular Economy Package and the waste prevention programmes in the EU Member States should contribute to a reduction in waste generation.

Country level information

In 2016, the EU per capita generation of waste — excluding major mineral wastes — amounted to 1 783 kg. This is 63 kg more than in 2010; an increase of 3.7 % over the 2010-2016 period. When Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey (the four other EEA member countries for which data are available) are included in EU per capita waste generation, the trend over the 2010-2016 period remains similar, with an increase of 4.4 % (EEA calculations based on Eurostat, 2018a).

Figure 2 shows that the majority of European countries generate between 1 and 2 tonnes of waste (excluding major mineral waste) per person per year. Between 2010 and 2016, half of the EU countries reduced their per capita waste generation, while the other half increased it. The high figures for Estonia are because of energy production based on oil shale (Eurostat, 2018c).

2. Waste generation (excluding major mineral wastes) per capita, by country

Note:  The data were extracted on 17 October 2018. For 2016, data for Albania, Greece and Ireland were not available and data for 2014 were used instead. Eurostat data estimates for 2016 were used for the EU-28

Outlook beyond 2020

The long-term prospects for reducing the waste generated in the EU are uncertain. A shift to a circular economy, with increased reuse of goods and materials, has the potential to reduce waste generation. The waste prevention programmes adopted by the EU Member States, Iceland and Norway can be expected to take effect towards 2020. However, the effectiveness of many of the waste prevention measures in the programmes can currently not be assessed for the EU and Europe as a whole. The Circular Economy Package (EC, 2015) includes a number of measures that aim to reduce waste generation beyond 2020. These include concrete measures to promote reuse and stimulate industrial symbiosis — turning one industry’s by-product into another industry’s raw material — and economic incentives for producers to put greener products on the market and support recovery and recycling schemes (e.g. for packaging, batteries, electric and electronic equipment, and vehicles). The success of these measures will be key to the medium- to long-term prospects for reducing waste generation.

About the indicator

This indicator is defined as the weight of waste generated per year, excluding major mineral wastes (mineral construction and demolition waste, other mineral waste, dredging spoils and soils). Although the indicator focuses mainly on non-mineral wastes, which represent approximately 35 % of the total waste generated in the EU, ‘it is considered to reflect the general trend in waste generation more accurately and in a more comparable way than the generated total including mineral wastes’ (Eurostat, 2018d). This exclusion enhances the quality of the indicator as the uncertainty over major mineral waste data and associated statistics (in particular construction and mining) is rather high, while for some waste streams (for example contaminated soils) the key aim is to remediate these waste streams rather than to count them as waste. The exclusion also enhances comparability across countries, as mineral waste accounts for very high quantities in some countries and for some economic activities, such as mining and construction.

Waste generation data by economic sector are published by Eurostat every 2 years. These are grouped for the purpose of the indicator in the following way: agriculture; forestry and fishing; energy and extraction; water and waste; manufacturing; construction; services; and households.

The water and waste sector includes water collection, treatment and supply, sewerage and three waste sector categories (waste collection, treatment and disposal activities, materials recovery, remediation activities and other waste management services; and wholesale waste and scrap). The data, especially for the water and waste sector, include secondary waste, i.e. material that is the output of waste treatment (secondary waste) (Eurostat, 2018e). Progress in the (pre-) treatment of waste may result in an increase in generated waste in the indicator because waste is counted twice; as primary and as secondary waste.

The energy and extraction sector includes electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply plus non-mineral wastes from mining and quarrying. Manufacturing includes food, textiles, wood, paper, coke, chemicals, metals, electronics, transport equipment and other machinery. 

The data used in this indicator are based on reporting according to the EU Waste Statistics Regulation (EU, 2002). The first reporting year was 2004 and data quality has been improving since then. In particular, during the 2004-2008 period, many countries implemented methodological changes in their data collection, including allocation of waste to sectors, reclassification from unspecific waste codes to more specific ones and exclusion of by-products from waste reporting. In 2010, a major revision of the Waste Statistics Regulation took effect, enabling a more precise calculation of the waste category ‘waste excluding major mineral wastes’ and the separate identification of secondary wastes. For all these reasons, the indicator in this briefing uses 2010 as a base year. It should be kept in mind that an analysis of trends that is based on four data points only (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016) is, nevertheless, rather uncertain.

Footnotes and references

[1] According to the methodology used across this series of briefings (that supports the monitoring of the 7th EAP), a change of less than 3 % in the indicator value from the base year to the year with the latest available data is considered insignificant and the trend is assessed as being relatively stable. A change of more than 3 % represents a significant trend (improving or deteriorating depending on the case). Last year’s trend was assessed as being stable, since there was an increase of less than 3 %, while this year’s trend was judged as being deteriorating since the increase was 5.1 %, i.e. more than 3 %.

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe’ (COM(2011) 571 final).

EC, 2014, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on statistics compiled pursuant to Regulation (EC) No 2150/2002 on waste statistics and their quality (COM(2014) 079 final).

EC, 2015, Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy (COM(2015) 614 final) (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm) accessed 9 October 2018.

EEA, 2015, Waste prevention in Europe — the status in 2014, EEA Report No 6/2015, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2016, Circular economy in Europe — Developing the knowledge base, EEA Report No 2/2016, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017, Circular by design — Products in the circular economy, EEA Report No 6/2017, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2018, Waste prevention in Europe – policies, status and trends in reuse in 2017, EEA Report No. 4/2018, European Environment Agency.

EU, 2002, Regulation (EC) No 2150/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 November 2002 on waste statistics (OJ L 332, 9.12.2002, p. 1).

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, 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 A, paragraph 43(d) (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

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

Eurostat, 2018a, ‘Generation of waste by waste category, hazardousness and NACE Rev. 2 activity (env_wasgen)’ (http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_wasgen&lang=en) accessed 12 October 2018.

Eurostat, 2018b, ‘Treatment of waste by waste category, hazardousness and waste management operations (env_wastrt)’ (http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_wastrt&lang=en) accessed 18 October 2018.

Eurostat, 2018c, ‘Statistics explained – Waste statistics’ (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Waste_statistics) accessed 18 October 2018.

Eurostat, 2018d, ‘Eurostat metadata — Generation of waste excluding major mineral wastes by hazardousness (sdg_12_50)’ (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/cache/metadata/EN/sdg_12_50_esmsip2.htm) accessed 18 October 2018.

Eurostat, 2018e, ‘Eurostat metadata — Generation of waste by waste category, hazardousness and NACE Rev. 2 activity (env_wasgen)’ (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/cache/metadata/en/env_wasgt_esms.htm) accessed 18 October 2018.

AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO2.1, 2018, Resource efficiency.

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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