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The EU aims to double its use of recycled material, in terms of its share in the total amount of material used by the economy, between 2020 and 2030, as set out in the circular economy action plan. Increasing the use of secondary materials would reduce the extraction of primary raw materials and related environmental impacts. In 2021, recycled material accounted for 11.7% of material used, an increase of less than 1 percentage point since 2010. This rather slow progress together with projections for increased material demand in the EU by 2030 signify that currently the EU is not on track to double the circular material use rate by 2030.
The EU’s circular economy action plan aims to reduce pressure on natural resources and states that the EU aims to double its circular material use rate in the coming decade . The circular material use rate (CMUR) indicates the circularity of materials in the economy and refers to the share of the total amount of material used in the economy that is accounted for by recycled waste. Increasing the CMUR — either by increasing the amount of recycled waste or decreasing the amount of material used — would reduce the amount of primary material extracted for production and the associated negative impacts on the environment and climate. Moreover, a reduction in the EU’s reliance on primary resources, including imported materials, would increase its strategic autonomy, as the EU would increase its ability to meet its own needs, without relying on countries outside the EU.
Although the EU’s CMUR has increased slightly in the past decade, from 10.8% in 2010 to 11.7% in 2021, it is still considered low. This trend is explained mainly by increases in the amount of waste recycled, while the domestic material consumption has remained rather stable . Non-metallic minerals account for more than 50% of total material consumption and decreases in the consumption of these materials has contributed significantly to the decreasing CMUR.
The CMURs increased for the biomass and fossil-based materials, but decreased for metals and non-metallic minerals between 2010 and 2021. The CMURs for the various material groups differ significantly, however, being above 22% for metal ores in 2021 and only 3% for fossil fuels. This reflects the different natures of the materials and how they are used. For instance, metals are technically easier and economically more attractive to recycle and feed back into the economy, while fossil fuels are mostly burned and therefore cannot be recycled.
Circular economy strategies, by aiming to retain the value and extend the life of products, can reduce resource consumption and consequently reduce the impacts on the environment and climate. Meeting the target of doubling the CMUR would mean an increase from 11.7% in 2021 to 23.4% by 2030 and the average CMUR growth rate of 2011-2021 would have to increase sixfold. This is rather unlikely, considering the very slight increase in the CMUR in the previous decade, no increase at all between 2020 and 2021 and projections by the OECD predicting an increased future demand for materials in the EU by 2030. The latter is important, since increasing recycling alone will not allow the EU to achieve the target. Increased recycling coupled with reduced material use would be required. Reducing the use of heavier material groups like non-metallic minerals and metals has a greater potential for increasing the CMUR. However, since material extraction has different environmental impacts, measures should also focus on reducing the consumption of fossil energy materials and increasing the sustainability of biomass production in view of reducing environmental pressures.
Considerable differences in CMURs are observed among countries, ranging from 33.8% (in the Netherlands) to 1.4% (in Romania) in 2021. This reflects significant structural difference in countries’ recycling capacities and in their levels of material consumption . In the Netherlands and Belgium, more than 20% (1 out of 5 tonnes) of material used was recycled material, while the CMUR level for the Netherlands is already much higher than the EU target for 2030. Countries with the highest CMURs have both high recycling capacities and low levels of material consumption.
Most (20 out of 27) countries’ CMURs have increased since 2010. The largest absolute CMUR increases (between 6 and 8.5 percentage points) were seen in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Estonia, Czechia and Malta. Some countries show impressive relative increases in their CMURs, with Latvia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Czechia and Malta more than doubling their CMURs between 2010 and 2021. On the other hand, significant decreases in CMURs were seen in Finland, Luxembourg and Romania.