Waste — municipal solid waste generation and management

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
8 min read
Photo: © Stipe Surać/EEA

Generation of municipal waste per capita has declined slightly from 2004 to 2012, but it is clearly better managed now than ten years ago.

The number of countries recycling and composting more than 30% of municipal waste increased from 11 to 17 out of 35, and those landfilling more than 75% of their municipal waste declined from 11 to 8.

The large differences in performance indicate room for further improvement and actions to meet the 2020 target to recycle 50% of municipal waste.

Setting the scene

This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on municipal solid waste (referred to as municipal waste). Although municipal waste only represents around 10% of total waste, it is very visible and has a diverse composition linked to consumption patterns. Countries that have developed efficient municipal-waste management systems generally perform better in overall waste management.[2]

About the indicators
Limitations of available data and indicators introduce an element of uncertainty when comparing across countries and over time. There are differences in definitions of municipal waste, the waste types included in reported data, and even differing methodologies for data processing. For example, some countries only include waste from households whereas others include similar wastes from commercial activities and offices. Therefore a country that includes more waste types (e.g. garden, packaging and bulky wastes) in municipal waste will appear to generate more municipal waste per capita than one that excludes these.

Countries have also changed their definition of municipal waste over time, and some reported the amount collected rather than generated. Countries can also choose between four different methods to monitor recycling rates.[3] Recycling rates can also be calculated differently depending on whether the weight of materials collected but discarded during the recycling process is included or not.

However, the indicators used in this assessment (municipal waste generated per capita, municipal waste recycled, and municipal waste sent to landfill) are currently the best available, and the calculation of recycling rates follows the most demanding method, which is used consistently in this assessment (see EEA Report No 2/2013 for further details).

Policies, targets and progress

Multiple waste policies and targets set at European level include minimum requirements for managing certain waste types. The most relevant targets for municipal waste are the Landfill Directive's landfill-diversion targets for biodegradable municipal waste; the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive's recycling targets; and the Waste Framework Directive's recycling target for household and similar wastes.[4]  Total municipal waste generation in the EEA countries declined by 1% in absolute terms and by 4% per capita from 2004 to 2012. However, there has been no uniform trend across countries, with an increase in municipal waste generation per capita in 15 — and a decrease in 20 — out of 36 countries for which data are available (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Municipal waste generated per capita in 36 European countries (2004 and 2012)

In 2012, municipal waste generation per capita was highest in Switzerland (694 kg/capita), Denmark (668 kg/capita) and Cyprus (663 kg/capita), and lowest in Romania (271 kg/capita) and Albania (262 kg/capita). This reflects differences in data, economic wealth between countries (wealthier countries usually generate more municipal waste per capita), and the recent economic downturn.

The Waste Framework Directive[5] sets a target for 50% of municipal waste (more precisely the target applies to specific types of household and similar wastes) to be recycled by 2020 in individual countries (except Turkey and Switzerland). One of the success stories of environmental policy in Europe so far is the increase in the rates of municipal waste recycling (covering material recycling, composting and digestion of bio-wastes). Countries achieved an average recycling rate of 29% in 2012, compared to 22% in 2004. Although this reflected only very modest improvements in recycling of bio-waste.

Figure 2: Municipal waste recycling in 35 European countries (2004 and 2012)

There were large differences in performance amongst those countries with the highest and lowest recycling rates (Figure 2). Germany, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland recycled more than half of their municipal waste in 2012. The highest increase in recycling rates between 2004 and 2012 occurred in Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Slovenia, Lithuania, Cyprus and the Czech Republic (18–25 percentage points). Overall, in 14 out of 35 countries, the increase in recycling rates exceeded 10 percentage points over this period. However, in six countries the share of recycled municipal waste barely changed (Austria, Finland, Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Switzerland). Recycling rates decreased in three countries, Malta, Turkey and Spain.  

There is a clear link between increasing recycling rates and declining rates of landfilling. In countries with high municipal waste-recycling rates, landfilling declines much faster than the growth in recycling, as waste management strategies usually move from landfill towards a combination of recycling and incineration, and in some cases also Mechanical-Biological Treatment (MBT).[4

The rate of municipal waste landfilling for the EU-27 went down from 47% in 2004 to 33% in 2012. The performance of individual countries varied. In Austria, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, virtually no municipal waste is sent to landfill. Whereas Lithuania, Cyprus, Romania, Greece, Malta, Croatia, Turkey and Latvia landfill more than three quarters of their municipal waste.

Overall, the rates of landfilling have decreased in 27 out of 31 countries for which data are available. Between 2004 and 2012, the largest decreases occurred in Poland (35 percentage points), the United Kingdom (33 percentage points), and Estonia (28 percentage points). The EEA has also published factsheets on municipal waste management in 34 EEA member and cooperating countries.


The majority of countries are making progress on diverting waste from landfill, thus moving municipal waste management up the waste hierarchy. The outlook for reaching the 50% recycling target for municipal waste by 2020 is mixed. This level of recycling has already been achieved by four countries, with another nine countries on track if they maintain the same rate of progress as recorded between 2001 and 2012.

However, the majority of the countries will have to step up their efforts in order to reach the target. Nine countries will have to increase recycling rates by 2–4 percentage points annually, while six countries need to achieve an unprecedented increase of more than 4 percentage points annually.[4]

Almost without exception, the better-performing countries in terms of recycling have a wider range of measures and instruments in place than poorer-performing countries. Measures include landfill bans on biodegradable waste or non-pre-treated municipal waste; mandatory separate collection of municipal waste types, especially biowastes; and economic instruments such as landfill and incineration taxes and waste collection fees that strongly encourage recycling. Although the key drivers behind better municipal waste management are clearly EU and national policies and targets, regional and local policies within countries also play a significant role in the process.[4][6]

The Waste Framework Directive required countries to establish national waste prevention programmes by December 2013. The effects of the programmes are yet to be seen in most countries, and it is premature to link declines in waste generation with their implementation and effectiveness. A clearer picture will emerge as the annual EEA review of national waste-prevention programmes progresses.[7] Turning waste into a resource will require full implementation of waste legislation and additional efforts to reduce waste generation in absolute terms, removal of barriers to recycling, and limiting landfill to residual (i.e. non-recyclable and non-recoverable) waste.[1]

Improvements in waste data and harmonisation of national reporting methodologies are required, as uncertainties relating to the comparability of national data is a barrier to assessment of progress and the effectiveness of policy measures. The legislative proposal to change the Waste Framework Directive, which also includes a review of targets for municipal and packaging waste,[2] will assist in this regard.

Countries' perspectives


[1] EU (2013), Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, pp. 171–200.

[2] EC (2014), Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directives 2008/98/EC on waste, 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste, 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste, 2000/53/EC on end-of-life vehicles, 2006/66/EC on batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators, and 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment, COM(2014) 397 final, Brussels, 2.7.14.

[3] EC (2011), Commission Decision of 18 November 2011 establishing rules and calculation methods for verifying compliance with the targets set in Article 11(2) of Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council (notified under document C(2011) 8165), OJ L 310, 25.11.2011, pp. 11–16.

[4] EEA (2013), Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries, EEA Report No 2/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[5] EU (2008), Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on waste and repealing certain Directives, OJ L 312, 22.11.2008, pp. 3–30.

[6] ETC/SCP (2014), The importance of regional and local policies on municipal solid waste management in Europe - exemplified by six regions in Italy, Poland and Spain, ETC/SCP Working Paper No 1/2014.

[7] EEA (2014), Waste prevention in Europe - the status in 2013, EEA Report No 9/2014, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage