The average European citizen generates around 5 tonnes of waste, of which only a limited share (39% for 2014 with a total EU waste production of 2,6 billion tonnes) is recycled. Much of the rest still ends up in landfills or incinerators.
Europe can simply not afford to continue this practice and waste an essential opportunity to improve its resource efficiency. Preventing products and materials from becoming waste for as long as possible and turning waste that cannot be avoided into a resource are key steps to achieve a greener, more circular economy. This can boost growth, create jobs, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the EU dependency on imported raw materials.
The EU waste policy provides a framework to improve waste management, stimulate innovation in separate waste collection and recycling, limit the use of landfilling, and create incentives to change consumer behaviour. It also aims to reduce the actual quantity of waste generated and the amount of harmful substances it contains.
To protect the environment and human health, the EU Waste Framework Directive has two key objectives: to prevent and reduce the negative impacts caused by the generation and management of waste and to improve resource efficiency. The Directive defines a 'hierarchy' to be applied by EU Member States in waste management. Waste prevention and re-use are the most preferred options, followed by recycling (including composting), then energy recovery, while waste disposal through landfills should be the very last resort. The EU waste legislation also sets specific targets to increase the recycling of specific waste streams, such as electronic equipment, cars, batteries, construction, demolition, municipal and packaging waste, as well as to reduce the landfilling of bio-degradable waste.
To become a successful circular economy requires the consistent implementation and enforcement of existing waste legislation across the EU. But this is currently not yet the case and some Member States perform much better than others. For instance, recycling rates for household waste vary from 70% in some areas to less than 20% in others.
The Commission has put forward new waste proposals to stimulate Europe's transition towards a more circular economy. Setting clear targets to increase recycling and reduce landfilling, these proposals strengthen the application of the waste hierarchy and provide a long-term vision at EU level. One barrier to higher recycling rates is the illegal transport of waste which often results in unsound waste treatment and can be very damaging both to human health and the environment. The Commission is taking measures to strengthen inspections on waste shipments.
When waste cannot be prevented or recycled, recovering its energy content is usually better than landfilling it. The Commission has developed a waste to energy initiative to improve the recovery of energy in the incineration of waste.
Find out how the EU aims to close the loop in our economy by treating waste as a resource.
Check out what else the Commission is doing to foster green growth.