Waste generation in Europe

Between 2010 and 2020, total per capita waste generation decreased by 4.2% in the EU. When major mineral wastes are excluded from the total, however, it increased by 1.4%. The EU aims to signficantly decrease its total waste generation by 2030 and the observed decrease could indicate 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. Since waste generation has followed trends in economic growth closely — albeit at a slower pace — substantial additional effort is required to sustain the decrease in waste generation in the context of a return to economic growth.

Published: ‒ 25min read

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% (209 kg/capita) in the EU-27. This decrease occurred 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. If we exclude them from the totals, the remaining and more environmentally significant waste streams still increased by 1.4% (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 GDP increased by 6% and, although waste generation decreased in the same period, it followed 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).

Furthermore, the prospects of meeting the EU’s ambition of significantly reducing per capita total waste generation by 2030 are uncertain given that the only observed decrease in waste generation is very recent (2018-2020) and has coincided with an economic slow-down. Substantial additional effort would be required, especially in the context of a return to economic growth.

On average, 4.8 tonnes of total waste were generated per EU citizen in 2020, down from 5.2 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.

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