An EU strategy on preventing and recycling waste aims to pave the way towards a recycling society by decoupling economic growth from natural resource use. But questions remain over whether the issue should be dealt with at national or European level, and on how to reconcile the EU's ecological and internal market objectives in the long run.
- 21 Dec. 2005: Commission adopts Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste .
- June 2008: Agreement on new recycling targets for municipal waste and construction and demolition waste. The agreement is part of the new EU Waste Framework Directive.
- 12 Dec. 2008: Revised Framework Directive on Waste enters into force.
- 3 Dec. 2008: Commission adopts Green Paper on managing biowaste in the EU.
- April 2009: European Environment Agency overview of municipal waste recycling in the EU 27.
- 25 June 2009: Council adopts conclusions on Green Paper on biowaste (EurActiv 29/06/09).
- By end 2009: Commission impact assessment of different policy options for separate EU legislation on biowaste.
- 2010: Commission expected to table proposed biowaste directive.
- By 12 Dec. 2010: Deadline for transposing Waste Framework Directive into national legislation.
- By 2014: Member states to establish special waste prevention programmes, under the revised Waste Framework Directive.
- By 2015: Commission to review measures and targets of Waste Framework Directive with a view to, if necessary, reinforcing the targets and considering the setting of targets for other waste streams.
- By 2015: Member states to set up separate collection schemes for paper, metal, plastic and glass under Waste Framework Directive.
- By 2020: EU target to increase the re-use and recycling of household waste materials (at least paper, metal, plastic and glass) to a minimum of overall 50% by weight.
- By 2020: EU target to increase re-use, recycling and other material recovery of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste to a minimum of 70% by weight.
As the world's population rises and living standards increase, the global economy is using more and more natural resources, including water, wood, minerals and fossil fuels. Indeed the EU, as one of the world's largest economic blocs, ranks among their largest consumers.
Natural-resource exploitation has a varied impact on the environment. The European Commission underlines that environmentally sustainable economic growth cannot be assured by simply reducing the amount of resources used. The EU's new member states still need to build a lot of new infrastructure, housing and other durable goods, for example, and are thus destined to consume even more resources to sustain their development. The same goes for emerging economies like China and India, the Commission notes.
According to the EU executive, natural-resource use by tonnage will quadruple by 2050 worldwide and at the current rate of depletion, the world cannot satisfy demand for resources from "virgin" materials alone.
One of the environmental impacts of exploiting natural resources is an increased amount of waste . Every European produces some 500 kg of household waste per year. Despite a considerable increase in recycling, the amount of waste is not falling as populations grow and living standards rise (EurActiv 10/03/09).
The Commission wants Europe to strive to decouple economic growth from the environmental impact of resource exploitation used to sustain it across all sectors of the economy. According to the EU executive, the solution is to use less resources by making more out of a given amount.
Policy framework: A fragmented landscape
There are two strategies dealing with waste management at EU level:
- The Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Strategy (2005), which aims to reduce the environmental impact of resource use in the growing world economy, and;
- the Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste (2005), which aims to help Europe become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource.
In addition, the bloc's recently revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD) introduces a 'waste hierarchy' and a new approach to waste management, especially focusing on prevention. For example, EU member states are obliged to establish special waste prevention programmes by 2014. It also aims to encourage the re-use, recycling and recovery of waste materials, accepting safe disposal only as a last resort.
The WFD is complemented by specific legislation on waste water and electrical and electronic waste , as well as laws governing waste from packaging , mining and batteries . Other areas covered include shipments and treatment operations, like landfill or incineration .
The Union's drive towards a recycling society is part of a wider strategy and policies on Sustainable Consumption and Production , which seeks to maximise the potential of business to transform environmental challenges into economic opportunities while providing a 'better deal' for consumers.
Furthermore, the bloc's Integrated Product Policy seeks to minimise products' environmental impact by looking at their lifecycles - from the extraction of natural resources via their design, manufacture, assembly, marketing, distribution, sale and use to their eventual disposal as waste - taking action where it is most effective.
Overall, diverting waste away from landfill is an important element of EU policy to improve the use of resources.
Too much legislation, not enough implementation
Persistent non-compliance with European waste laws is a problem for the EU.
A recent European Commission communication on implementing EU environmental law notes that certain member states still need to "end illegal landfilling, put in place adequate networks of regulated waste facilities, prevent illegal waste shipments and intensify public awareness of the goals of preventing, reusing and recycling waste". The Commission also urges member states to plan for and invest more in collecting and treating urban waste water.
An EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) study of lifecycle assessment for municipal waste management notes that more initiatives are required to overcome "financial, technical and psychological barriers for increased recycling of separately collected waste fractions".
A recent European Environment Agency (EEA) study on recycling levels of municipal waste states that all the old EU member states and almost all of the new ones have increased their recycling of municipal waste in the last ten years. Meanwhile, "significant differences " between recycling levels persist. The study indicates that the highest levels of recycling (>50%) are in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and the lowest (<11%)>
Glass, paper and cardboard, plastics and metals are generally considered the backbone of recycling in the EU, but there seems to be room for improvement regarding the recycling of biowaste. Biowaste alone accounts for some 30%-45% of municipal solid waste in Europe, but a majority of it ends up in landfills or incinerators. Meanwhile, burning biowaste is very energy-consuming, as it is mainly composed of water and needs to be heated to high temperatures to be burned.
Benefits of recycling society
The reuse, recovery and recycling of materials benefits both the environment and the economy.
According to the Commission, the environmental benefits include:
- A reduced amount of landfilled and incinerated waste;
- reduced consumption of primary natural resources and thus reduced CO2 emissions, as extracting virgin materials is a very energy and fossil fuel-intensive process. For example, making aluminium from recycled materials uses some 85% less energy than making it from virgin materials;
- reduced CO2 emissions from less waste in incinerators and landfills;
- improved natural resource, habitat and forest conservation, as recycling reduces the need for wood, water, minerals and other raw materials;
- quality compost from recycled biowaste for soils.
Moreover, investing in waste management and recycling can turn the waste problem into an economic opportunity. According to the Commission, these include:
- Reduced energy demand from different industrial sectors;
- using biowaste for energy production, such as biogas and ethanol, thus decreasing dependency on fossil fuels and increasing the EU's domestic energy supply (EurActiv 21/10/08). Waste buried in landfill sites undergoes anaerobic digestion and generates gases: so-called landfill gases (LFGs). LFGs comprise almost 50% methane, which is the same gas found in natural gas. These gases can be burned and seen as a source of renewable energy for generating electricity and producing heat.
- reduced demand for energy can help mitigate the effects of increasing oil prices;
- job creation, as recycling is said to create from five to seven times more jobs than incineration and ten times more jobs than disposal at landfills, and;
- new value creation through recovered materials.
While the EEA notes that the recycling markets have been negatively affected by the current economic crisis and that lower demand for waste materials "might hamper the further positive development towards more recycling in the EU," the recycling sector is expected to grow rapidly in the face of escalating commodity prices.
Towards lifecycle thinking
The Commission believes that the EU needs to take a "resource approach to waste". This includes moving to lifecycle thinking, adopting waste prevention policies and increasing recycling and recovery of waste, for which economic instruments "have particular potential," it says.
The EU executive wants to move towards a European recycling society by "developing common environmental requirements for waste recycling and allowing waste for recovery to move more freely" between the EU 27.
Action by member states alone would render the internal market in waste recycling "inoperable" and damage cooperation on other forms of waste treatment, leading to "significant economic costs," the Commission argues.
According to the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), waste management guidance can be delivered more efficiently at EU level, as geographical conditions vary and the diverse nature of impacts/benefits on a regional/global scale are difficult to grasp at local level. Meanwhile, local impact variations would still need to be considered regarding the location of facilities or local needs for either heat or compost, the Commission argues.
Moreover, the creation of an EU market for waste recovery requires the development of common EU waste treatment standards. Common standards would need to determine preferable methods of treatment for a given waste stream, emissions from waste-management processes and the quality of recovered materials.
Need for financial incentives, technical progress
According to the Commission, decoupling environmental degradation from economic growth will require both technological progress and the use of financial instruments.
A number of stakeholders are also calling for financial incentives to encourage and promote recycling. Such incentives include either raising taxes or making citizens and businesses pay the exact price for recycling different materials. This can be done by fixing specific prices for rubbish bags: bags containing recycled material would be cheaper than bags where all rubbish is mixed. As for businesses, some NGOS are calling for the mandatory principle of 100% financial responsibility of the producer to be introduced.
The concept of 'Individual Producer Responsibility' is the subject of much controversy. Parts of the strategy seek to reduce the total environmental impact of a product by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for its entire lifecycle, and especially for its take-back, recycling and final disposal.
Requiring authorities to consider the recyclability of products like paper or electrical equipment in their procurement are also part of the solution. Differentiated VAT could be applied for example and virgin paper could be imposed a higher VAT than recycled one.
In parallel to financial incentives, science and R&D also have a part to play. They can help move towards more efficient recovery and reuse of materials and prevent waste from being created in the first place. Nanotechnology, for example, has the potential to be used for waste-water treatment.
Lastly, ways could be explored to make landfill and incineration more expensive. Work on common standards is considered key to boosting the creation of EU-wide recycling markets.