Waste recycling in Europe

The waste recycling rate — the proportion of waste generated that is recycled — is growing in the EU-27, driven by EU binding recycling targets, which indicates progress towards using more waste as a resource and achieving a circular economy. The rate of progress is slowing down, with packaging waste recycling actually decreasing in the past 5 years. Achieving a circular economy and improving the environmental performance of waste management requires a faster rate of progress , as the majority of waste ends up in disposal operations such as incineration and landfill.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Recycling rates of municipal waste, packaging waste and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) — which represent significant sources of secondary materials and critical raw materials — are slowly increasing in Europe, indicating a move towards using waste as a resource and a more circular economy.

The overall recycling rate, the ratio between total waste generated excluding major mineral wastes and the quantities that were managed through recycling, remain below half of the total waste generation for the period where data are available, displaying a rate of 46% in 2020.

The progress made for three key waste streams — packaging, municipal waste, and electrical and electronic waste — has been more significant than progress in overall recycling. This reflects the importance of the strong EU policies, including recycling targets, in driving improvements in waste management, as all three waste streams are targeted by EU acquis. However, their recycling rates are still below half of the generated waste, with the exception of packaging, which reached 64% in 2020.

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.

Rising demand for primary resources weakens the EU's material self-sufficiency and puts pressure on the environment. Recycling is a method to reduce the consumption of primary resources by replacing them with secondary materials from recycled waste and avoid to environmental and climate issues associated with primary resource extraction. Increasing recycling rates is a desired approach to achieving sustainability, material self-sufficiency and other benefits of a circular economy.

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 2020, rates ranged from 70% in Germany to 11% in Malta, for EU Member States, while Kosovo registers no recycling. Eight countries, namely Germany, Austria, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Italy achieved (in descending order) recycling rates of 50% or higher, while another seven countries 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 2018, 14 EU Member States were identified of being are at risk of not meeting the recycling target for 2020 set in the Waste Framework Directive (recycling 50% of specific materials in household and similar wastes).

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