A yellow, a white and a green wheelie bin side-by-side.

Waste and recycling

Today more than ever, the European Commission is working hard to preserve our limited resources. In 2004, it launched the Thematic Strategy on Prevention and Recycling of Waste. This long-term strategy aims at helping Europe to become a recycling society that avoids waste and uses any unavoidable waste as a resource. Following this line, the Waste Framework Directive was substantially amended in 2008, further focusing on minimisation of waste generation and maximisation of waste valorisation.

Since the inception of the new strategy, the JRC has collaborated closely with the Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment in implementing EU waste policies. As one of the tools to stimulate the development of the recycling sector, the JRC has developed the framework under which certain valuable waste streams can obtain 'end-of-waste status' and become products again, subject to the same open market rules as their primary raw material counterparts.

First steps towards better use of recyclable waste

Which waste streams could cease to be waste and become products? The JRC has developed a methodology for end-of-waste criteria, and has assessed which waste streams could cease to be waste with priority.

From 2005 until 2008, the JRC carried out a scientific analysis of different waste streams that are candidates for being considered end-of-waste, and developed a methodology for determining end-of-waste criteria, based on a number of case studies. The objective of end-of-waste criteria is to remove the administrative burdens of waste legislation for safe and high-quality waste materials, thereby facilitating recycling. The objective is achieved by requiring high material quality of recyclables, promoting product standardisation and quality assurance, and improving harmonisation and legal certainty in the recyclable material markets.

The outcome of the JRC work was presented in two main reports:

  • 'End-of-waste criteria, methodology and case studies'. This report presents a general methodology and guidelines analysing the principles according to which the criteria should be set up, and provides the related analytical and impact assessment frameworks required to determine end-of-waste criteria. Three case studies - for aluminium & steel scrap, aggregates and compost - were conducted in this context, and are annexed to the report.
  • 'Study on the selection of waste streams for end-of-waste assessment'. This report identifies the waste streams generated in the EU that are suitable candidates for a detailed end-of-waste assessment.

The JRC work set the basis for implementing the provisions on end-of-waste, as defined in Article 6 of the 2008 Waste Framework Directive.

First end-of-waste studies completed and pioneering end-of-waste regulation adopted.

In 2011, the first EU Regulation on end-of-waste criteria for aluminium, iron and steel scrap (EU 333/2011) enters into force, based on proposals by the JRC. The JRC further completes proposals on copper, paper and glass end-of-waste criteria.

Following the adoption of the Waste Framework Directive, the JRC has continued its close collaboration with DG Environment in the implementation of the mechanism of end-of-waste criteria, introduced by Article 6 in the Directive. The Commission decided to propose end-of-waste criteria for a number of specific recyclable materials including metal scrap of aluminium and iron, copper metal scrap, waste paper and waste glass. The JRC has assisted DG Environment in this by preparing the technical studies proposing end-of-waste criteria on these materials, using its earlier developed methodology. These studies are the result of intense consultations with experts in a technical working group, and consist of thorough techno-economic-environmental assessments that verify when the recyclable waste material is safe for the environment and has a high enough quality to merit being released from the waste regime. The technical working group for each waste material was established with representatives of Member States and expert stakeholders from industry, NGOs and academia.

Two frontrunner studies were completed in 2010 on ferrous scrap and aluminium scrap. Based on the results of these studies, the first end-of-waste Regulation (EU 333/2011) was adopted in Comitology. It applies EU-wide since 9 October 2011.

A second round of technical studies on waste paper, copper and copper alloy scrap, as well as waste glass (glass cullet) have been concluded. On the basis of the JRC studies, Regulation proposals for end-of-waste criteria on these materials were prepared for the Comitology process.

Further end-of-waste studies in the pipeline

Following the first set of end-of-waste proposals, the JRC starts work on end-of-waste criteria for biodegradable waste and plastics. It also launches preparatory studies for waste derived fuels and aggregates.

A third round of studies has been initiated on biodegradable waste, and waste plastics. Work for these streams has not been finished, but is in the final stages of discussion within the specific Technical Working Groups:

  • Biodegradable waste subject to biological treatment (compost/digestate)
  • Waste plastics

In the future, the Commission may develop end-of-waste criteria on additional streams, although no decision in this direction has been taken so far. In order to assess the feasibility of potential further materials for receiving end-of-waste status, the JRC launched two studies in 2010:

  • Tendered study on methodological aspects regarding limit values for pollutants in aggregates
  • Tendered study on the suitability of different waste-derived fuels for end-of-waste status

The projects started early 2011 and are now completed. The JRC and DG Environment will be using these reports for internal assessments and may issue an edited version.

In addition to the studies above, the IPTS is analysing possible methodological approaches to monitoring the degree of uptake of end-of-waste in the EU, following the introduction of EU Regulation 333/2011.

Improving materials resource management

The JRC is exploring additional possibilities for optimising waste prevention, reuse and recycling, with special emphasis on critical materials.

In 2012, the JRC started a study that aims at further supporting its existing activities on techno-environmental modelling and policy support. One of the objectives of the work is to develop a ready-to-use model for quantification of changing environmental-economic impacts related to a change in effective prevention, reuse and recycling of materials. The latter change can originate from better implementation of existing policies at EU and national level, or from newly developed policies.

The outcome of the study, especially the developed model and indicators, will be used in combination with JRC's existing modelling tools and databases to assess the overall impact of effective changes in prevention, reuse and/or recycling with regard to environmental impacts, economic impacts, geostrategic impacts and societal impacts.

On the one hand, the study will focus on classic materials for which a recycling market already exists. On the other hand, the study will pay special attention to important materials that recently started emerging on the market and for which existing waste policies are scarce. For these materials, called "critical", demand has risen substantially in recent years, while supply may be at risk because of environmental, technical or political reasons.