Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
10 min read
Photo: © Mandee Gage/EEA
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Guided by diverse policies, European countries have improved waste management. Manufacturing and service sector waste declined by about a quarter in 2004–2012, while municipal waste generation fell 2%. Along with increased recycling, these trends helped reduce landfilling. Nevertheless, progress to EU waste targets is mixed. Achieving the EU's long-term objective of establishing a circular economy will require far-reaching technological, behavioural and organisational change.


Europe can secure many social and economic benefits from treating waste as a resource. In addition to reducing environmental pressures, better waste management can secure vital resources, create jobs and boost competitiveness. Waste prevention and management have a central role in enhancing resource efficiency and creating a circular economy that enables society to maximise the economic returns on scarce resources.

The European Union (EU) has introduced multiple waste policies and targets since the 1990s. As in other environmental areas,[1] the focus of waste policy has broadened over this period. Examples of policy instruments include:

  • legislation on specific waste streams, such as packaging,[2] vehicles[3] and electrical and electronic equipment;[4][5]
  • legislation and guidance on waste treatment options, such as landfilling,[6] waste treatment industries[7] and waste incineration;[8][9]
  • legislation on the environmental performance of products, such as ecodesign[10][11] and restrictions of the use of certain hazardous substances;[12][13]
  • framework legislation and strategies, such as the Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste[14] and the Waste Framework Directive.[15]

The overarching logic guiding EU policy on waste is the waste hierarchy, which prioritises waste prevention, followed by reuse, recycling, other recovery, and finally disposal or landfilling as the least desirable option.

Key trends

In broad terms, Europe has shifted waste management up the waste hierarchy in recent years. Although differences in national waste definitions and data processing methodologies introduce some uncertainties into an analysis of European trends, there is evidence that less waste is being landfilled as a result of reduced generation of some wastes, and increased recycling and energy recovery.

Waste prevention

Economic production and consumption in Europe is becoming less waste intensive, even after the economic downturn since 2008 is factored into the analysis. For example, as illustrated in Figure 1, waste generation from manufacturing in the EU-28 and Norway declined by 25% in absolute terms between 2004 and 2012, despite an increase of 7% in sectoral economic output. Waste generation from the service sector declined by 23% in the same period, despite an increase of 13% in sectoral economic output.

Turning to consumption, total municipal waste generation in EEA countries declined by 2% between 2004 and 2012, despite a 7% increase in real household expenditure. Per capita generation of municipal waste declined by 5% in the same period, falling from 503 to 478 kg/capita.

Figure 1: Waste generation by production and consumption activities in European countries

Waste management

Europe achieved substantial progress in diverting waste from landfill in recent years — both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total waste generated. Between 2004 and 2010, the EU-28, Iceland and Norway reduced the amount of total waste (excluding mineral, combustion, animal and vegetable wastes) deposited in landfills by 23%; from 205 billion tonnes to 157 billion tonnes.

The decrease in landfilling is partly due to increased recycling and incineration of waste. Recycling rates tend to have improved fastest in waste streams with EU-wide targets.[16][17] In 2011, EEA countries (excluding Iceland, Croatia and Turkey) recycled 63% of their packaging waste, up from 57% in 2006. For municipal waste, EEA countries achieved a recycling rate of 37% in 2012, compared to 28% in 2004. These improvements reflected an increase in the recycling of materials, with only very modest improvements in the recycling of biowaste.[17]

Transboundary movements of waste

Driven by EU trade legislation and recycling targets — along with escalating resource demand in fast growing Asian economies — exports of waste from EU Member States have grown significantly. Exports of waste iron, steel, copper, aluminium and nickel doubled between 1999 and 2011. Waste precious metal exports increased by a factor of three and waste plastics by a factor of five. Exports of hazardous waste more than doubled in the period 2000–2009, although these overwhelmingly stayed in the EU.[18]

Transboundary movements of waste can enable access to recycling or disposal options that are unavailable or more costly in the source country — meaning lower financial
 costs for waste management and potentially also lower environmental costs. Trade can also facilitate using waste as an input to production. However, moving waste across borders can involve costs and risks, such as illegal movements of hazardous electronic waste (e-waste). Since informal sector workers in developing countries lack the equipment and skills to handle e-waste safely, the result is significant environmental pollution and health risks for local people, as well as the loss of valuable materials.[18]

Reduced environmental harm

Improved waste management reduces pressures associated with both waste disposal (e.g. pollution from incineration or landfilling) and with extracting and processing new resources. The EEA estimates that improved municipal waste management in the EU-27, Switzerland and Norway cut annual net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 57 million tonnes CO2-equivalent in the period 1990–2012, with most of that reduction occurring since 2000. The two main factors responsible were reduced methane emissions from landfill and avoided emissions through recycling.[19]

Figure 2: Greenhouse gas emissions from municipal waste management in the EU-27, Switzerland and Norway


The EU estimates that full implementation of existing EU waste legislation could save EUR 72 billion a year by 2020, while creating over 400 000 jobs and increasing annual EU waste management and recycling sector turnover by EUR 42 billion.[20] Better recycling infrastructures, collection and recycling rates could also alleviate European reliance on resource imports, boosting security of supply of some of the critical resources used in new technologies.[21] Securing these potential gains will require Member States to achieve the full spectrum of EU waste targets.

Analysis by the EEA[17][22] suggests that progress towards waste targets is mixed.  Many Member States seem likely to achieve the target of recycling 50% of some fractions of household and similar wastes by 2020 (although Decision 2011/753/EC enables countries to choose between four different methods for calculating recycling rates, producing different results). But achieving other targets, such as the EU's 'near zero landfill' target in 2020, will depend on a significant change in approaches to current waste management practices.

Policy tools such as taxes or bans on specific wastes or management approaches, pay-as-you-throw schemes and extended producer responsibility could all enable a shift up the waste hierarchy.[17] The large differences in waste management and progress to targets across Europe underline the importance of national and local instruments such as landfill taxes and bans, mandatory separate collection and waste collection fees that encourage recycling.

Measures that deter landfilling can produce adverse effects if they result in illegal dumping of waste or the development of undesirable alternatives, such as excessive incineration capacity or low-quality mechanical biological treatment for mixed waste types. Tools such as landfill taxes therefore need to be complemented with additional measures, for example enhanced supervisory systems and incentives for preferred waste management approaches.

Moving beyond existing policy targets, the Roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe[23] and the 7th Environment Action Programme[20] also signal a new level of ambition in applying the logic of the waste hierarchy, including additional goals on waste prevention and using waste as a resource. As a first step towards these goals, the European Commission is reviewing the EU's targets on municipal and packaging waste.[24]

Achieving the EU's medium- and long-term objectives will require more far-reaching changes, extending beyond the waste sector and engaging all actors in establishing a circular economy. Minimising waste or making it less harmful depends on actions across the full product lifecycle. Factors such as design and choice of material inputs play a major role in determining a product's useful lifespan, the amount of resources and energy used in production, and the possibilities for repairing it, reusing parts or recycling.

Technological and social innovations can also offer new ways to meet society's demand for products and services. Examples include resource-efficient production processes, re-manufacturing, industrial symbiosis, product-service systems, collaborative consumption and take-back schemes. EU and national policy should create the incentives and enabling frameworks to support new business models that can realise these innovations. This could include helping establish new markets for recycled materials.

These measures can contribute to achieving the potential economic and environmental benefits of sustainable waste management. For Europe to fully understand its progress towards these benefits, improvements in information on waste flows is required. The waste data currently collected is insufficient to support thorough analysis of waste prevention and recycling across the continent.


[1] EEA (2010), The European environment – state and outlook 2010: synthesis, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[2] EU (1994), European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC of 20 December 1994 on packaging and packaging waste, OJ L 365, 31.12.1994, pp. 10–23.

[3] EU (2000), Directive 2000/53/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 September 2000 on end-of life vehicles - Commission Statements, OJ L 269, 21.10.2000, pp. 34–43.

[4] EU (2002), Directive 2002/96/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 January 2003 on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) - Joint declaration of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission relating to Article 9, OJ L 37, 13.2.2003, pp. 24–39.

[5] EU (2012), Directive 2012/19/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2012 on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), OJ L 197, 24.7.2012, pp. 38–71.

[6] EU (1999), Council Directive 1999/31/EC of 26 April 1999 on the landfill of waste, OJ L 182, 16.7.1999, pp. 1–19.

[7] EC (2006), Integrated pollution prevention and control reference document on best available techniques for the waste treatments industries, European Commission.

[8] EC (2006), Integrated pollution prevention and control reference document on best available techniques for waste incineration, European Commission.

[9] EU (2010), Directive 2010/75/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 November 2010 on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control), OJ L 334, 17.12.2010, pp. 17–119.

[10] EU (2005), Directive 2005/32/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 2005 establishing a framework for the setting of ecodesign requirements for energy-using products and amending Council Directive 92/42/EEC and Directives 96/57/EC and 2000/55/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, OJ L 191, 22/07/2005, pp. 29–58.

[11] EU (2009), Directive 2009/125/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for the setting of ecodesign requirements for energy-related products, OJ L 285, 31.10.2009, pp. 10–35.

[12] EU (2002), Directive 2002/95/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 January 2003 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, OJ L 37, 13.2.2003, pp. 19–23.

[13] EU (2011), Directive 2011/65/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2011 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, OJ L 174, 1.7.2011, pp. 88–110.

[14] EC (2005), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — Taking sustainable use of resources forward — A Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste, COM/2005/0666 final, 21.12.2005.

[15] 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.

[16] EEA (2009), Diverting waste from landfill — Effectiveness of waste-management policies in the European Union, EEA Report No 7/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

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

[18] EEA (2012), Movements of waste across the EU’s internal and external borders, EEA Report No 7/2012, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[19] EEA (2012), Consumption and the environment — 2012 update, European Environment Agency.

[20] 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.

[21] EEA (2011), Earnings, jobs and innovation: the role of recycling in a green economy, EEA Report No 8/2011, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[22] EEA (2013), Towards a green economy in Europe EU environmental policy targets and objectives 2010–2050, EEA Report No 8/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[23] EC (2011), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions  — Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, COM(2011) 571 final, Brussels, 20.9.2011.

[24] EC (2014), Review of Waste Policy and Legislation, Review of Waste Policy and Legislation, accessed 6 March 2014.


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