Waste recycling in Europe

The waste recycling rate — the proportion of waste generated that is recycled — is growing in the EU-27, indicating progress towards using more waste as a resource and achieving a circular economy. The rate of progress is slowing down, however, with little improvement over the past 5 years. Achieving a more circular economy requires a faster rate of progress, as the amount of waste recycled is still less than half of total waste generated. Specific waste streams show varying recycling rates, ranging from 66% for packaging waste to 39% for electrical and electronic waste.

Published: ‒ 25min read

A key principle of EU waste policy is to move waste management up the ‘waste hierarchy’ and to follow the principles of a circular economy, namely to maintain resource value in the economic cycle to prevent and reduce the negative effects of using primary resources on the environment and society. Recycling is one of the main ways to reduce the consumption of primary resources, by replacing them with secondary materials made from recycled waste. This is the desired approach to achieving sustainability, material self-sufficiency and the other benefits of a circular economy.

EU targets for waste management are key drivers of increasing recycling rates, that is, of increasing the amount of waste recycled as a percentage of waste generated. 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.

Recycling rates for municipal waste, packaging waste and WEEE — significant sources of secondary materials and critical raw materials — are slowly increasing in Europe, indicating some progress towards using more waste as a resource and achieving a circular economy. The overall recycling rate — the ratio between total waste generated excluding minerals and the quantities that were managed through recycling — stayed below half of the total waste generation for the period data are available, showing a recycling rate of 48% in 2016. More recent data will become available in 2021.

Progress made in recent years for three key waste streams — packaging, municipal waste, and electrical and electronic waste — has been more significant than global progress. However, their recycling rates are still below half of generated waste, with the exception of packaging, which reached 66% in 2018.

Most of the countries considered have significantly increased their municipal waste recycling rates since 2004, which clearly indicates improvements in waste management. However, the difference in municipal waste recycling performance between the countries with the highest and lowest recycling rates is large. In 2019, rates ranged from 67% in Germany to 5% in Montenegro. Eight countries, namely Germany, Slovenia, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy, achieved (in descending order) recycling rates of 50% or higher, while another six countries recycled less than 20% of their municipal waste. Moreover, several countries with relatively low recycling rates made little progress between 2004 and 2019 and, in 2018, 14 EU Member States were identified as being at risk of not meeting the 2020 recycling target set in the Waste Framework Directive (to recycle 50% of specific materials in household and similar wastes by 2020).

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