A key goal of EU waste policy is to cut the amount of waste sent to landfill. The landfill rate has decreased (from 23% to 16% between 2010 and 2020) overall in the EU-27, even though the total amount of waste generated has continued to increase. Furthermore, the quantities of waste landfilled in 2020 were 27% less in the same period, equivalent to 106kg of waste per year by each EU citizen. For some waste streams, such as (mixed) household and similar waste, relatively good progress has been made towards diverting waste from landfill. However, the amount of sorting residues sent to landfill has doubled since 2010.

Figure 1. Amounts and share of waste deposited in landfills, by type of waste category, EU-27

Amounts and share of waste deposited in landfills, by type of waste category, EU-27

The EU’s approach to waste management is based on the waste hierarchy, which prioritises the prevention of waste followed by preparation for reuse, recycling, other recovery and then disposal, including to landfill. This final option is the least desirable and should be used only if absolutely necessary.

Landfilling can pose risks to the environment and, despite technical measures such as bottom sealing, can reduce the quality of groundwater and surface water. A long-term goal of the EU is to transition to a circular economy that avoids generating waste and uses unavoidable waste as a resource wherever possible.

Overall the generation of waste, excluding major mineral waste, has increased in the EU in recent years. This poses challenges for waste management and potentially undermining the EU’s objective of reducing its reliance on landfill. However, between 2010 and 2020, the total quantity of waste sent to landfill decreased by 27.5%, from 173 million tonnes to 125 million tonnes.

The overall landfill rate — waste sent to landfill as a proportion of waste generated — decreased from 23% to 16% during 2010 and 2020. The key waste categories landfilled are household and similar waste (mixed municipal waste, waste from markets, bulky waste and waste similar to household waste produced by small businesses, office buildings and institutions), sorting residues (mainly secondary wastes from waste treatment facilities) and combustion waste (e.g. waste from flue gas purification and slags and ashes from waste incineration).

All remaining waste categories were classified as other waste, which comprises chemical and medical waste, recyclable waste, equipment waste, animal and vegetal waste, mixed and undifferentiated materials, and common sludges. Between 2010 and 2020, the landfilling of household and similar waste decreased by 57% (40.9 million tonnes), combustion waste by 30% (14.9 million tonnes) and other waste by 28% (9.3 million tonnes). However, the landfilling of sorting residues increased by 100% (17.6 million tonnes). This increase hints to the expansion of the waste sorting sector, reflecting a gradual shift from landfilling to the material recovery of waste, therefore indicating higher recycling.

Figure 2. Municipal waste landfill rates in Europe by country

Municipal waste landfill rates in Europe by country

Landfill rates for municipal waste, a key waste stream and target of waste policies, vary strongly between European countries. Between 2010 and 2021, nearly all countries (except for Germany that landfills very small quantities of waste) reduced their reliance on landfill, with most significant reductions achieved by Lithuania, Slovenia, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Finland, as well as Iceland from the EEA's non-EU country group. However, some countries made very limited progress.

Policies proven successful in reducing landfilling include landfill bans and taxes, and incentives for recycling and recycling infrastructure.

In line with the EU Landfill Directive, Member States must reduce the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less of the total amount of municipal waste generated by 2035. In 2021, nine Member States and two non-EU countries achieved this level (Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Norway and Switzerland), with several of these countries incinerating a considerable amount of municipal waste. It is important to note that the current data available were not collected in accordance with the reporting rules related to the target, and therefore, the data shown in this indicator cannot be used to show compliance with the target.