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Challenges and opportunities in making Europe a ‘recycling society’



The initiative to promote the prevention and recycling of waste at EU level has led to substantial improvements but significant margins still exist for better resource efficiency.

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto─Źnik on a visit to the UMICORE precious metal recycling plant in Belgium in January 2011 set the tone for the EU’s waste-prevention strategy: "My old mobile phone contains gold, platinum, palladium and copper …This is not waste that we should bury or burn; it is a resource that we should respect."

The Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste adopted in 2005 aimed to help Europe become a ‘recycling society’ – one that avoids producing waste but also uses it as a resource. The progress towards the strategy’s objectives was reviewed by the Commission in its ‘Report on the Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste’.

Since strategy’s adoption, huge steps have been made in simplifying and ensuring implementation of waste legislation. This includes the 2008 revision of the Waste Framework Directive that adopted a waste hierarchy in which prevention plays the central role. EU policy with the support of environmental technology has been moving waste management up the established hierarchy.

There are encouraging qualitative trends at EU level:

  • Europeans recycle more: recycling rates increased by 5% between 2005 and 2008;
  • Less waste ends up in landfill: roughly 40% in 2008 compared with almost 50% in 2005;
  • Hazardous waste continues to decrease;
  • Energy recovery from waste has increased; and
  • A significant number of substandard landfills has been closed.

However, results in quantitative terms are not impressive. The amount of waste produced is still rising, as household consumption has increased by 16% over the past decade.

A problem identified by the report is the disparity between different Member States. Recycling rates vary from a few percentage points in some countries to 70% in others; and, while landfill has disappeared in a small number of countries, it still represents 90% of waste management in others.

Without appropriate action, waste generation is expected to increase by 7% until 2020. Therefore, ‘life-cycle thinking’ should be further integrated to ensure a holistic approach that connects EU policy, economy and environmental technology. For instance:

  • Establishing further eco-design measures and applying the producer- responsibility principle can improve the environmental performance of products;
  • New eco-innovative initiatives can connect production and consumption, and help develop a market for secondary raw materials; and
  • Introducing higher prevention and recycling standards can contribute towards a more resource-efficient economy.

The whole effort to make Europe a ‘recycling society’ should be viewed within the broader context of the new flagship initiative for a resource- efficient Europe. The initiative, which is an integral part of the Europe 2020 strategy, supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth.

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