Europe is generating too much waste — and not enough is being recycled. The EU is working to create a more circular economy, among others, by preventing waste and improving waste management. At the same time, there are goals to reduce waste’s burden on health and the environment, and to keep valuable resources in the economy.  

The EU generates massive amounts of waste from manufacturing, food, construction, electronics, textiles... And more is being generated each year.

In addition to losing valuable resources, waste can have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment. For example, incinerating waste can contribute to air pollution, landfills might contaminate water and land.

That is why the EU developed a waste policy that keeps products in use for as long as possible and sets strict standards for how to responsibly dispose of them when they can no longer be used. Policies and initiatives also focus on preventing waste generation in the first place by, for example, reducing food waste and making products easier to repair.

Many reuse and recycling initiatives can contribute to reducing the loss of resources in the EU: 

  • Reuse centres and second-hand shops make old products available to new users.
  • Biowaste is turned into biogas and fertiliser.
  • Secondary materials are created from building waste.
  • Metals in electronic waste, such as from computers, gadgets and batteries are recovered and can be used in new devices.

Overall, the EU is slowly showing improvement toward recycling more and landfilling less. Still, achieving the EU’s waste objectives requires significant effort. Non-recyclable products need to be phased out, and waste should be collected separately so it can be recycled.

The way we manage our waste also needs to account for new waste streams. For example, as the number of electric vehicles grows in Europe, how will we recycle their batteries? Products need to be designed in a way to allow the recycling and reusing of their components.

Waste recycling is increasing in the EU. The EU’s recycling rate of municipal waste has been slowly improving for several years and reached 49%. Still, 24% of municipal waste is landfilled. Recycling rates for other specific waste streams vary, from 64% for total packaging waste to 39% for electrical and electronic waste.  

Our waste indicators also show that:

  • Waste generation (excluding mineral wastes) across Europe increased by 1% between 2010 and 2020.
  • On average, each European produces about 4.8 tonnes of waste annually. About 39% of it is recycled.
  • Recycling rates vary considerably by country. Eight countries achieved recycling rates of 50% or higher, while another eight countries recycled less than 20% of their municipal waste.
  • Overall, the share of waste sent to landfill decreased from 23% to 16% between 2010 and 2020 in the EU-27, even though the total amount of waste generated has continued to increase.

The 2020 EU circular economy action plan aims to halve the total amount of municipal waste not recycled by 2030 in the EU. By then, all EU Member States must recycle at least 60% of their municipal waste. Still, even if all EU Member States reach their 60% recycling target by 2030, trends indicate that the target to halve the absolute amount of municipal waste not recycled will not be achieved unless considerably less municipal waste is generated.

EU waste directives targeting other types of waste include:

Under the umbrella of the European Green Deal and the circular economy action plan, there are additional policies and measures that aim at reducing waste, such as the ban on single-use plastics.

Picture of a room full of textiles either hanging on a rail (on the right) or placed clumsily (on the left), with light from an open window (centre).

Preventing unnecessary textile waste

Textiles is a fast-growing, environmentally impactful waste stream associated with unsustainable production and consumption. Clothing and other textiles are getting cheaper, meaning that people are buying more and using them for shorter periods.

Society can prevent textile waste through policies that ensure people buy fewer textiles, but a mentality and behavioural change is needed as well. Overall, the EU Textiles Strategy and other policies emphasise product design to promote durable and long-lasting materials. Preventing unnecessary textile waste is essential.

At the same time, support should be given to repair (e.g. through tax breaks) and reuse (e.g. through regulation). EU countries must also ensure that textiles waste is separated from other waste by 2025.

EU's waste exports

Although more than 90% of the waste generated in the EU is treated domestically, significant amounts are still exported to other countries. Iron and steel are the most prominent materials in waste imports into the EU as well as exports from it.

These shipments are almost exclusively composed of non-hazardous materials and are mostly exported for recycling. However, there have been indications that, in many instances, waste shipped for treatment outside the EU is not optimally managed. This potentially creates more pollution than if the waste were to be managed within the EU.

Our zero pollution report highlights some of the issues linked to waste exports.

How much of the municipal waste is recycled in your country?

Can waste sector policies help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

While the waste sector accounts for about 3% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, better use of waste as a resource can help reduce emissions in other sectors.

Waste sector emissions could decrease further once all current EU waste policies are fully implemented. Moreover, waste sector GHG emissions would decrease by 53% from the 2021 level if all EU-27 Member States, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland reduced their emissions to the average per-capita solid waste sector emissions of the five best performing countries

What is your country doing to prevent waste?

Waste prevention is one of the key strategies to achieving a circular economy because it can reduce resource use, maximise the useful life of products and materials, and promote demand for more sustainable products.

Currently, almost all EU Member States have some quantitative targets and indicators on waste prevention but these targets and indicators vary widely.

The EEA has published updated ‘Waste prevention country fact sheets’, which show country-specific data and analysis on waste prevention efforts in EEA member and cooperation countries across Europe. 

More information