Diversion of waste from landfill in Europe

A key goal of EU waste policy is to cut the amount of waste sent to landfill. Overall, the amount of landfill waste has decreased (in 2018 it was 7.6% less than in 2010), even though the total amount of waste generated has continued to increase. The landfill rate — waste sent to landfill as a proportion of waste generated — decreased from 23% to 20% in the same period. 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.

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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 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, one that avoids generating waste and uses unavoidable waste as a resource wherever possible.

Overall, the generation of waste has increased in the EU in recent years, posing challenges for waste management and potentially undermining the EU’s objective of reducing its reliance on landfill. However, between 2010 and 2018, the total quantity of waste sent to landfill decreased by 7.6%, from 173 million tonnes to 160 million tonnes. This is equivalent to a decrease of some 30 kg of waste per year per EU citizen.

The overall landfill rate — waste sent to landfill as a proportion of waste generated — decreased from 23% to 20% between 2010 and 2018. However, the rates vary depending on the waste category. The proportion of household and similar waste (mixed municipal waste, waste from markets, bulky waste and waste produced by small businesses, office buildings and institutions) disposed of in landfill decreased by 51% (36.5 million tonnes) during this period. Moreover, the landfill rate for waste categorised as ‘other’ (chemical and medical wastes, recyclable wastes, equipment waste, animal and vegetal wastes, mixed and undifferentiated materials, and common sludges) decreased by 14% (4.6 million tonnes). However, for combustion waste (e.g. waste from flue gas purification and slags and ashes from waste incineration) the rate increased by 16% (8.5 million tonnes) and for sorting residues (mainly secondary wastes from waste treatment facilities) by 111% (19.5 million tonnes). These increases for combustion waste and sorting residues were due to the expansion of combustion capacity in the EU, tighter conditions for the material utilisation of combustion residues and the development of the waste sorting sector to enable a shift from landfill to the material recovery of waste.

Landfill rates for municipal waste, a key waste stream and target of waste policies, vary greatly between European countries. Between 2010 and 2019, nearly all countries reduced their reliance on landfill, with the most significant reductions being achieved by Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia. However, some countries made very limited progress. Policies proven successful in reducing landfilling include landfill bans and taxes, and incentives for recycling.

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 2019, 10 Member States had achieved this (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden), with several of these countries incinerating a considerable amount of municipal waste. However, it is important to note that the data currently available were not collected in accordance with the reporting rules related to this target and, therefore, the data shown in this indicator cannot be used to assess compliance with the target.

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