Page Last modified 20 Apr 2016
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Chapter 36: Waste production and management — The problem

The rapidly increasing quantities of waste generated in European countries are a major concern for Europe's environment (see Chapter 15). It is estimated that Europe produces annually over 250 million tonnes of municipal waste and more than 850 million of industrial waste. The annual average rate of increase of these wastes since 1985 in the OECD European area is estimated at around 3 per cent. Present disposal and processing capacity is probably not sufficient to deal with the expected growth. Often, existing facilities are not adequate to ensure acceptable environmental standards. The siting of new facilities usually encounters considerable opposition from local people concerned with the potential risks for their local communities.

Major constraints to safe management are imposed by significant changes in the quality of waste. Increasing amounts of discarded products contain substances now recognised to be toxic or highly toxic. Improper management and illegal dumping of waste, particularly hazardous and toxic waste, pose increasing threats to the environment and human health. Transfrontier movements of such waste from countries with strict regulations towards less-regulated countries increase the potential environmental risk of waste disposal in countries with insufficient control. There are increasing attempts to bring these problems under control by introducing national and international legislation.

Waste issues in Europe become apparent when the environmental impacts of waste management practices are examined:

However, it is the production of waste in the first place which causes major environmental impacts. Waste production implies the use of material and energy and the depletion of the Earth's renewable and non-renewable resources (see Chapter 13). Waste issues and their solutions are inevitably linked to production and consumption throughout all stages of the life-cycle of materials and the use of energy (see Chapter 12).

Waste is also regarded as a 'second generation' pollution problem to which other problems are eventually reduced. Since the 1970s, European countries have achieved important progress in reducing emissions into air and water from production processes by imposing strict emissions standards on conventional pollutants. However, as a result of their single-media mandate, environmental regulations have addressed air and water pollution problems separately. The result has been to move pollution problems to the least regulated environmental medium and the least controlled form of pollution. The implementation of emission control technologies has often resulted in increased amounts of solid waste from production processes. In addition, the concentration of hazardous substances in solid residues has increased.

European countries today recognise that reducing pollution loads requires an integrated pollution control strategy. A hierarchy of preferred options for waste management was adopted in 1976 by OECD countries (Box 36A). Reducing waste at source not only minimises the impact of waste treatment and disposal, it also enhances the efficient use of raw materials. However, despite the increasing emphasis on waste prevention, wastes have increased. Landfill and incineration, instead of recycling, are still the predominant practices in waste management, although differences exist between countries (Table 36.1). Waste often still escapes control or avoids strict regulations through transfrontier movement across European countries and from Europe to developing countries.

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