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Biodegradable Waste

Bio-waste is defined as biodegradable garden and park waste, food and kitchen waste from households, restaurants, caterers and retail premises, and comparable waste from food processing plants. It does not include forestry or agricultural residues, manure, sewage sludge, or other biodegradable waste such as natural textiles, paper or processed wood. It also excludes those by-products of food production that never become waste.

Currently the main environmental threat from biowaste (and other biodegradable waste) is the production of methane from such waste decomposing in landfills, which accounted for some 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-15 in 1995. The Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) obliges Member States to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste that they landfill to 35% of 1995 levels by 2016 (for some countries by 2020) which will significantly reduce this problem.

The Landfill Directive does not prescribe specific treatment options for the diverted waste. The most significant benefits of proper bio-waste management - besides avoided emissions of greenhouse gases - would be the production of good quality compost and bio-gas that contribute to enhanced soil quality and resource efficiency, as well as a higher level of energy self-sufficiency. In practice, however, Member States are often inclined not to opt for composting or bio-gas production, and instead choose the seemingly easiest and cheapest option such as incineration or landfilling and disregarding the actual environmental benefits and costs.

Unquestionably, landfilling is the worst waste management option for bio-waste. However, for the management of biodegradable waste diverted from landfills, there seems to be several environmentally favourable options. While the waste management hierarchy also applies to the management of bio-waste, in specific cases it may be justified to depart from it as the environmental balance of the various options available for the management of this waste depends on a number of local factors, inter alia collection systems, waste composition and quality, climatic conditions, the potential of use of various waste-derived products such as electricity, heat, methane-rich gas or compost. Therefore, national strategies for the management of this waste should be determined in a transparent manner and be based on a structured and comprehensive approach such as Life Cycle Thinking (LCT). In order to assist decision-makers in making the best use of biodegradable waste in line with the waste hierarchy, the Commission has prepared a set of guidelines on how to apply Life Cycle Assessment and Life Cycle Thinking to planning the management of bio-waste. The guidelines are available here.

A number of EU legal instruments address the issue of treatment of bio-waste. General waste management requirements, such as environmental and human health protection during waste treatment and priority for waste recycling, are laid down in the revised Waste Framework Directive which also contains specific bio-waste related elements (new recycling targets for household waste, which can include bio-waste) and a mechanism allowing setting quality criteria for compost (end-of-waste criteria). Landfilling of bio-waste is addressed in the Landfill Directive which requires the diversion of biodegradable municipal waste from landfills. The IPPC Directive (soon to be replaced by the Industrial Emissions Directive) lays down the main principles for the permitting and control of bio-waste treatment installations of a capacity exceeding 50 tonnes/day. The incineration of bio-waste is regulated in the Waste Incineration Directive, while the health rules for composting and biogas plants which treat animal by-products are laid down in the Animal By-products Regulation.

The details concerning current Commission works concerning further regulation and guidelines for the management of bio-waste, as well as studies on this subject, can be found in the section "Developments".