Material resources and waste — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 18 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
4 min read
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State of the environment report No 5/2010
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The European economy needs huge amounts of resources to function. Apart from consuming minerals, metals, concrete and wood, Europe burns fossil fuels and uses land to satisfy the needs of its citizens. Demand for materials is so intense that between 20 and 30 % of the resources we use are now imported. At the other end of the materials chain, the EU economy generates around six tons of waste per person every year. With the boom in international trade, EU consumption and production may potentially damage ecosystems and human health not only within but also far beyond its borders.




Economic growth, technological progress and the way Europeans produce and consume resources all impact the environment. For the EU-27 Member States, the average annual use of material resources is some 16 tonnes per person. The bulk of this ends up as materials accumulated in the economy; the rest is converted into emissions or waste. About six tonnes of waste per capita are generated each year. Forecasts predict that Europe will increase its use of materials as countries recover from the economic recession that started in 2008.

Europe has become more efficient in managing material resources: we create more wealth out of the resources we use. Yet in absolute figures, our consumption of materials continues to increase. Furthermore, despite long-term improvements, growth in the productivity of materials in the EU has been significantly slower than growth in the productivity of labour.

The overall trend in waste generation, including hazardous waste, is upwards. On the other hand, waste management has improved. For example, 40 % of municipal waste in 2008 was recycled or composted compared to 17 % in 1995 in the EU plus Norway and Switzerland. 59 % of packaging waste is now recycled, and 12 out of 19 countries recycle or recover more than half of their construction and demolition waste. Nevertheless, for total waste, as of 2006, disposal was still dominant (51.5 %) over recycling (43.6 %), whereas less than 5 % is sent to incineration.

The EU aims to become a 'recycling society' and supports a greener economy which provides both better resource efficiency and improved security of supply. But Europe's economy is still heavily dependent on imported raw materials — 2008 imports amounted to about 1 800 million tonnes (about 3.5 tonnes per person), with fuels and lubricants accounting for most of this amount. The Europe 2020 Strategy adopted by the European Council in June 2010 aims at improving resource efficiency to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth.

Targets set in the recent past have not always been met: the EU was expecting to become 'the most resource-efficient economy in the world' and 'substantially reduce waste generation', according to the Sixth Environment Action Programme (6EAP) adopted in 2002. However, there is no indication that these goals will be achieved unless there is a considerable change in production and consumption patterns. In addition, Europe needs to curb illegal shipments of waste, tackle illegal or sub-standard landfilling, and fully implement its waste legislation.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100