The waste recycling rate — the proportion of waste generated that is recycled — has been growing in the EU-27, driven by EU binding recycling targets. This indicates progress towards using more waste as a resource and achieving a circular economy. Recently, the rate of progress has been stagnating and in some cases has reversed, with packaging waste recycling actually decreasing in the past five years. In 2021 the majority of waste was still disposed of through incineration or landfill operations. Achieving circularity in Europe and minimising environmental impacts from natural resource use requires continuous ambitious waste management policy setting to incentivise recycling and discourage waste disposal in landfills and incineration plants.  

Figure 1. Recycling rates in Europe by waste stream
Recycling rates in Europe by waste stream

Rising demand for primary resources weakens the EU's material self-sufficiency, imposing pressure on the environment. Recycling is the only mainstream waste management operation preventing valuable resources in our waste from being destroyed. Using recycled material for new product manufacturing avoids the enormous environmental impacts associated with the extraction and processing of natural resources. Increasing recycled material is a desired approach to achieving sustainability, material self-sufficiency and other benefits of a circular economy.

In the EU, recycling rates of waste (municipal, packaging and e-waste) — which also represent significant sources of critical raw materials — have in general been slowly increasing, indicating a move towards a more circular economy. The overall recycling rate, i.e. the ratio between total waste generated excluding major mineral wastes and the quantities that were managed through recycling, stood at 46% in 2020. The highest recycling rate was registered for packaging at 64%, followed by municipal at 49% and e-waste at 39%, all in 2021.

EU targets for waste management are key drivers of increasing recycling rates. For example, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive sets targets for the separate collection and recycling of electrical and electronic waste; the Waste Framework Directive includes targets for the recycling and preparing for reuse of municipal waste; and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive defines targets for recycling packaging waste. In total, EU waste legislation includes more than 30 binding targets for the period 2015-2030.

Until recently, the progress made for these three key waste streams has been more significant than in overall recycling. This reflects the importance of the strong EU policies in driving improvements in waste management. However, in more recent years, the recycling rates for all three waste streams have been stagnating and the increasing trends for packaging waste and WEEE have reversed. The overall recycling rate shows little progress in general and remians below 50%, meaning the majority of generated waste is disposed of in landfills and incineration plants.

The ambition that has traditionally underpinned EU waste policy needs to be preserved and reinforced so that recycling is further supported, while landfilling and incineration is discouraged, for a circular economy to continue its advancement.

Figure 2. Municipal waste recycling rates in Europe by country

All countries considered, except for Sweden, have increased their municipal waste recycling rates since 2004, which clearly indicates improvements in waste management. Some countries (Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Latvia) have even achieved remarkable improvements, registering increases of more than 40 percentage points. The difference in municipal waste recycling performance between the countries with the highest and lowest recycling rates is large. In 2021, rates ranged from 68% in Germany to 11% in Romania. Nine countries, namely Germany, Austria, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy achieved recycling rates of 50% or higher, while another four countries (Cyprus, Malta, Türkiye and Romania) recycled less than 20% of municipal waste. However, several countries with relatively low recycling rates made little progress over the past 15 years, and in 2023, 18 EU Member States were identified as being at risk of not meeting the recycling target for 2025 set in the Waste Framework Directive (recycling 55% of municipal waste).