Between 2010 and 2020, total per capita waste generation decreased by 4.2% in the EU. The EU aims to signficantly decrease its total waste generation by 2030 and the observed decrease could indicate some progress towards this. However, the decrease is recent (2018-2020) and coincides with the slow-down of the EU economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Waste generation has followed trends in economic growth relatively closely. It therefore does not seem likely that waste generation will significantly decrease by 2030 in context of the current return to economic growth. Substantial additional effort would be required to sustain the decrease in waste generation.

Figure 1. Waste generation and decoupling per capita in the EU-27
Waste generation and decoupling per capita in the EU-27

The EU has long strived to fulfil its policy objective to reduce waste though preventing waste generation, which is the first step in the waste hierarchy as laid down in the EU Waste Framework Directive. The zero pollution ambition of the EU is to significantly reduce total waste by 2030.

Between 2010 and 2020, total waste generation per capita decreased by 4.2% (or from 5.0 to 4.8 tonnes/capita) in the EU-27. This decrease occurred because of a decrease in 2018-2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic slow-down played a key role.

Major mineral wastes, such as hard rocks, concrete, soils and others (all of which are mainly produced in the mining and construction sectors) feature in large quantities in relation to other waste types. They also usually represent an environmental issue of relatively less concern because of their inert nature. If we exclude them from the totals, the remaining and more environmentally significant waste streams still increased by 1.4% (or an increase of 25 kg/capita).

For total waste generation, the observed decrease is driven by waste generated in the mining and quarrying, and construction sectors, which is logical as major mineral waste constitutes a large part of total waste generation (64% in 2020). If this type of waste is excluded, the trend in waste generation is driven by decreasing waste generation in the manufacturing and the energy sectors, and increases in waste generated by households and by water and waste treatment activities. The latter indicates improvements in waste management as the increased presence of secondary waste from waste management indicates increases in recycling.

The main driver for the trend in waste volumes is considered to be economic growth, with gross domestic product (GDP) the most common parameter used to track the economy’s size. For the period 2010-2020, the EU’s per capita GDP increased in real (deflated) terms by 6% and, although waste generation decreased in the same period, it followed relatively closely trends in GDP development, albeit at a slower pace, indicating a relative decoupling.

In 2020, the EU economy contracted due to measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and waste generation registered a substantial decrease of 8% compared with 2018. Therefore, although for the entire period 2010-2020, waste decreased while the economy grew, the EU has not yet achieved absolute decoupling (i.e., constantly decreasing waste generation in a growing economy).

It seems unlikely that the per capita total waste generation will significantly decrease by 2030. The only observed decrease in waste generation is very recent (2018-2020) and has coincided with negative GDP growth rates. In addition, waste generation has historically followed relatively closely GDP growth and since 2020 the GDP growth rates have been positive and the European Central Bank projects this to remain as such in the coming years. Substantial additional effort would be required to significantly decrease the per capita waste generation by 2030.

Figure 2. Generation of waste, excluding major mineral waste, per capita and by European country (2010 and 2020)
Generation of waste, excluding major mineral waste, per capita and by European country (2010 and 2020)

On average, 4.8 tonnes of total waste were generated per EU citizen in 2020, down from 5.0 tonnes/capita in 2010. This average masks large country differences both in absolute waste volumes per capita and in waste generation trends.

Amounts generated ranged from less than 1.5 tonnes per capita (Portugal) to 21 tonnes per capita in 2020 (Finland) for EU Member States, and from less than 1 tonne (North Macedonia) to 11.5 tonnes (Liechtenstein) for other European countries. Different levels partly reflect the different structures of countries’ economies, and extreme numbers and significant differences can be influenced by specific country situations. In general, 11 of the 27 EU Member States (14 of the 34 countries with available data) for 2020 were above the EU average.

Trends over time also show a mixed picture between countries: The total waste generated per capita increased in 16 Member States (21 of the 34 countries with available data) and decreased in the rest. In the EU, the largest relative decrease was observed in Greece and the largest relative increase in Latvia (the highest increase overall was in Iceland). In some cases, the trends are influenced by improvements in data quality over time.