Resource efficiency and waste

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Page Last modified 17 Jun 2019
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The global environmental problems we face today are largely the result of human overexploitation of natural resources, including (fossil) fuels, minerals, water, land and biodiversity. It has become increasingly clear that Europe's prevailing model of economic development — based on high resource use, waste generation and pollution — cannot be sustained in the long term. Today, the European Union (EU) is heavily reliant on imports. Many of the resources are only in use for a short period of time, or they are lost to the economy through being landfilled or downcycled (involving a decrease in quality during recovery operations).


Europe's economy depends on an uninterrupted flow of natural resources and materials, including water, crops, timber, metals, minerals and energy carriers. Imports provide a substantial proportion of these materials. Increasingly, this dependence could be a source of vulnerability, as global competition for natural resources increases.

In recent years, the concept of the circular economy and related policies have tackled resource use, production, consumption and waste at a high level. This concept aims to close material loops by maintaining the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible. This effectively reduces waste generation and the use of virgin material, hence also reducing associated pressures.

The use of resources, and the generation and treatment of waste result in significant environmental pressures during the extraction, production, use and end-of-life stages. As such, environmental policy goals include reducing the amount of materials used in the economy, improving resource efficiency, lowering the generation of waste and turning waste into a resource.  

Resource use in Europe has declined over the last decade. This is largely related to trends in economic growth and structural changes in the economy following the financial crisis. Today, the resource use and resource efficiency of countries varies  greatly and some of the related pressures take place outside Europe’s borders because of global trade.

In recent years, the focus has been on the security of supply of critical raw materials. However, the prevention of waste and waste management is now a key aspect of the circular economy.

Europe still generates a large amount of waste, although trends in waste generation are rather stable and the tendency is for waste generation to become decoupled from economic development. At the same time, waste is more and more perceived as a valuable resource for the European economy. The share of waste that is recycled is slowly increasing, while the amount of waste going to landfill is decreasing. Differences in performance between countries are, however, still high.

Comprehensive EU waste legislation is a key driver of better waste management.


EU policies

 The 7th EAP identifies stepping up resource efficiency as one of its three key objectives to meet the 2050 vision of ‘living well, within the limits of the planet’:

  • to protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital;
  • to turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy;
  • to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being.


The broad objectives of the 7th EAP are supported by a series of more specific policy instruments. Resource efficiency, and waste and secondary resources are key components of the so-called Circular Economy policy. The EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy established a concrete and ambitious programme of action, with measures covering the whole cycle.

Specific policies address the various elements of the Circular Economy paradigm. In the case of resource efficiency, they include the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the Roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy.

Another cluster of policies aims to shift away from the linear 'take-make-consume-dispose' pattern of growth, towards a circular model that relies on maintaining the utility of products, components and materials, and retaining their value in the economy. As noted in the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, this will require changes across supply chains, including in product design, business models, consumption choices, and the prevention and management of waste.

EU Waste legislation is one its main policy drivers. Key EU waste directives were revised in 2018. These are the Waste Framework Directive, Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, Landfill Directive, Batteries and Accumulators Directive, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, and End-of-life-vehicles Directive.

The revised directives increase the ambition level for the recycling of municipal and packaging waste, while landfill of municipal waste needs to be further reduced. Food waste should be halved by 2030, and hazardous waste and bio-waste from households will have to be collected separately. Moreover, the new rules foresee greater use of effective economic instruments such as extended producer responsibility schemes.


EEA activities

The EEA continuously invests in strengthening the knowledge base on resource efficiency and the circular economy including waste, as well as in capacity building and experience transfer within the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet).

The EEA analyses material flows as well as data and information on waste and produces related indicators and assessments. Policy progress is analysed in three parallel reporting series on waste prevention and resource efficiency/circular economy. An overarching perspective is provided in circular economy reports and contributions to integrated assessments, such as the EEA’s European Environment — State and Outlook report (SOER) series.

Detailed analyses of selected aspects of resource efficiency and circular economy policies are produced on a regular basis, looking at such topics as monitoring, targets, market-based instruments and other intervention strategies.

Stakeholder interaction and capacity building related to these assessments is an important element of the work, with regular Eionet outreach and workshops with the National Reference Centres on waste and on resource efficiency and circular economy.



Current work is primarily geared towards improving the evidence base on resource efficiency, circular economy and waste. Contributions to the SOER series are foreseen, with an emphasis on thematic information (waste and resource use) as well as systemic analysis of the transition to a circular economy. 

In the revised waste directives, the EEA has been given the task of supporting the implementation of waste legislation in EU Member States. Every 2 years, the EEA will review countries’ waste prevention programmes and assess progress towards waste prevention and the transition to the circular economy.

Regarding waste management, the EEA will support the European Commission in assessing EU Member States’ performance towards newly defined targets on the recycling and landfill of municipal waste, and the recycling of packaging waste. This will provide input to an ‘early warning’ mechanism.



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Filed under: waste, material resources
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