Traditionally waste has been seen as a source of pollution. But well managed waste can be a valuable source of materials, especially when many are becoming scarce.
The EU economy uses 16 tonnes of materials per person per year, of which 6 tonnes becomes waste, half of it going to landfill. Many Member States still rely on landfills to manage their waste, even though they are unsustainable.
Landfills can contaminate soil and pollute water and air. Uncontrolled dumping can release dangerous chemicals and endanger health. Above all, the valuable materials in the waste are lost.
The best option is to stop creating waste. When that isn't possible, other good choices are re-use, recycling and recovery.
Good waste management can make a big contribution to economic growth and job creation. It saves valuable resources, avoids costly clean-up operations, and prevents health problems.
According to a 2012 study, if all EU waste legislation was fully implemented, Europe would save €72 billion a year, the turnover of the waste management and recycling sector would rise by €42 billion, and it would create 400,000 jobs by 2020.
So why isn't it happening? Often, prices don't include the true cost of disposing of goods after use. If they did, this would help prevent waste. Illegal practices are widespread, especially in countries where waste isn't separated, and where recycling, recovery, and legal enforcement are weak.
The EU is trying to improve waste management in Member States that have weak waste policies, recommending economic instruments such as landfill taxes, making producers take goods back at the end of their life, and asking citizens to pay for their waste.
EU laws on items like electrical equipment, packaging, batteries, and cars to be scrapped have brought about clear improvements in waste collection and management, and many products now contain fewer hazardous substances as a result. But there is still room for improvement!