Europe’s objective: recycle more waste and send less to landfills

Article Published 17 Mar 2014 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Europe produces large amounts of waste. How does Europe manage its waste? Is it a problem or a resource? We asked these questions to Almut Reichel who works on waste and sustainable consumption issues at the European Environment Agency.

Is waste a problem or a resource?

Waste is both, depending on what we do with it. It is a problem because it can affect people’s health and the environment. For example, landfills are an important source of methane emissions, which is a powerful greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Run off from landfills can contaminate ground waters and soil, which can then enter the food chain.

Waste in landfills actually represents a substantial loss of materials, along with all the other inputs used in production and distribution – imagine the energy used for extraction and transport of materials, and so on. The whole chain has impacts on the environment, and often, the chain’s impact is larger than the impact of the final waste itself. If we can recycle and re-use what we have, we avoid a part of the loss as well as the chain’s impact.

What does the EEA do in the area of waste?

The EEA’s work on waste consists of analysis and assessments to support EU and national policies. For example, we are analysing the waste management in the EU countries as a way of giving support to the implementation of EU legislation. The key legislation in this area is the EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD). It outlines a waste management hierarchy: starting with prevention, followed by preparing for re-use, recycling, recovery and ending with disposal. The objective is to prevent waste as much as possible, to use the generated waste as a resource and to minimise the amount of waste sent to landfills. We are tracking the progress achieved by the countries to see if they are moving up the waste hierarchy, meaning if they are recycling more and sending less to landfills.

The WFD and other EU waste directives include specific targets. For instance, by 2020, each EU country has to recycle half of its municipal waste – waste collected from households, schools, etc. We analyse progress towards such targets and share our findings with our member countries as well as the European Commission.

EU countries can adopt different approaches to achieve the targets. Through our network Eionet, we can compile information on what each country did, what worked, what did not work. Sharing such information helps countries to find better ways to implement and be inspired by others.

What does the waste situation look like in Europe?

Overall, more waste is recycled and less is sent to landfill in the EU. For municipal waste, the share of recycled or composted waste increased from 30% in 2004 to 41%in 2012 in the EU-27. However, performance levels vary considerably among the countries. Some countries are performing better than the targets; others need to reinforce their efforts. The potential gains are immense and they can facilitate the EU’s move towards a circular economy, where waste is perceived and used as a resource.

We can also see that some approaches seem to work better than others. To give you one concrete example, landfill taxes appear to be an effective way to reduce waste ending up in landfill, if designed well. Extended producer responsibility, where the producer has to take back the product at the end of its life, also seems to be a concept that works.

Europe is still generating large amounts of waste: 492 kg of municipal waste per person in the EU-28. The trend is slightly going down, partly due to the economic crisis.

We also know that there are illegal activities, such as illegal dumping, burning or illegal exports. It is difficult to estimate to the full extent of such activities as well as their impacts. But littering, for example, is a growing concern both in the marine environment and on land. Unless it is collected, litter made of plastics just breaks down in smaller pieces and does not disappear in nature.

What are the main challenges in tackling waste?

Waste is directly linked to our consumption and production systems, and currently, these systems do not offer many incentives to reduce waste.

The sheer amount of products entering the market is another challenge. The amount waste that needs to be managed is massive. Creating an infrastructure for collecting, sorting and recycling is costly, but once in place, recycling also generates revenues. Overall, the environmental costs of the ‘chain’ are often not included in the price of products.

There is also a global dimension to waste. Waste generation is increasing rapidly in the world along with increasing wealth and purchasing power. What we consume and produce in Europe could also generate waste elsewhere. But many countries are adopting strategies similar to the European one, aimed at moving away from landfills and more towards recycling, re-use and prevention.

What is coming up on waste issue from the EEA?

In addition to our regular work on waste management, we started to work on waste prevention. The WFD requires all the EU countries to adopt programmes, outlining what they are planning to do for waste prevention. We are currently reviewing these programmes. We will publish our findings later this year.

We are also working on developing three new indicators on waste generation; recycling; and diversion from landfills. They will replace the two existing indicators.

More and more emphasis will be put on waste prevention, re-use and high-quality recycling in the future. Waste policies will also require closer links with consumption as well as the broader resource efficiency and green economy framework. Our work on waste will be developed accordingly.

Almut Reichel

EEA expert on sustainable consumption and waste

Interview published in the issue no.2014/1 of the EEA newsletter, March 2014.


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