EU Science Hub

Waste and Circular Economy

At the end of 2015, the Commission launched its ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan. The transition to a more circular economy, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimised, is an essential contribution to the EU's efforts to develop a sustainable, low carbon, resource efficient and competitive economy.

The JRC has collaborated closely with various Commission services to support the transition to such a circular economy. This started by stimulating the recycling sector with the development of the framework under which certain valuable waste streams can obtain 'end-of-waste' status. That initial work formed the foundations for JRC's more recent activities on developing nutrient recovery rules for waste based fertilisers. In addition, the JRC has been exploring the untapped technical potential of waste-to-energy and is updating Best Available Techniques for the management of extractive waste.


A first step towards recognising high quality waste materials as valuable secondary raw materials that deserve to enjoy the same open market rules for products like their primary raw material counterparts.

Following the adoption of the Waste Framework Directive in 2008, the JRC closely collaborated 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  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.

Based on the results of these studies, three end-of-waste Regulations were adopted: one on ferrous and aluminium scrap, one on copper and copper alloy scrap and one on waste glass (glass cullet).

Nutrient recovery rules for waste based fertilisers

Developing quality criteria to keep valuable nutrients from waste in the agro-economic cycle and reduce dependency on fossil nutrient sources.

One of the key actions of the Circular Economy Action Plan was to produce a revised Regulation on Fertilisers, for which a proposal was presented in 2016.

The proposed revised Fertilisers Regulation would see an expansion of its scope to other fertilising product categories than the currently regulated ones (mineral fertilisers, liming materials, agronomic additives). Hence, it would provide an opportunity to make the recovery of nutrients from waste and other non-traditional sources a more attractive business across Europe.

In view of this wider scope, the Commission has taken the initiative to develop possible process and product criteria for secondary raw materials that could be used in the production of fertilising products.

In this context, the Commission has established a dedicated subgroup of the Fertilisers expert group that will provide non-binding advice to the European Commission on possible recovery rules for nutrients from eligible materials into struvite, biochar or ash-based fertilising materials. All documents related to this project can be consulted on the dedicated "JRC Recovered Fertilisers" Interest Group on the Commision's CIRCABC collaborative platform (free registration required).

Untapped technical potential of waste-to-energy

In some circumstances, waste may prove difficult to prevent, reduce or recycle. In order to avoid landfilling of combustible waste, disposal options should focus on recovering a maximum of energy in such cases.

At the end of 2016, the JRC published its study "Towards a better exploitation of the technical potential of waste to energy".

Waste-to-energy is a broad term that covers much more than waste incineration. It encompasses various waste treatment processes recovering energy from waste (e.g. in the form of electricity or heat or via transformation into a waste-derived fuel), each of which has different environmental impacts and circular economy potential.

The JRC study describes the state-of-play of incineration and other waste management options for different wastes in the EU, provides an assessment of proven and emerging techniques for increased energy recovery in waste-to-energy processes and concludes with an outlook of possible evolutions in the EU's waste-to-energy landscape.

This study provided important techno-scientific input to the 2017 Commission, Communication on waste-to-energy which focused on the place of waste-to-energy in the circular economy.

Best Available Techniques for the management of extractive waste

Ensuring minimal impacts on the environment from quarries, mines and on-shore oil & gas extraction sites by applying modern and proven techniques for the management of extractive waste.

The Directive on the management of waste from extractive industries (the Extractive Waste Directive) requires that operators of mines, quarries and oil & gas drilling sites take all measures necessary to prevent or reduce any adverse environmental or human health effects related to the management of the extractive waste. In order to help operators and competent authorities to select the appropriate measures, a first BREF, i.e. a Best available techniques REFerence document, was drafted in 2001-2004 and published in 2009.

Since then, new technological developments have seen the light and new challenges have arisen in an enlarged EU. Therefore, the Commission launched the process of reviewing and adapting the extractive waste BREF at the end of 2013. This review process is based on the well-established "Sevilla process" and is supported by a technical working group with representatives of Member States and expert stakeholders from industry and NGOs.

A draft reviewed BREF document was issued for consultation to the Technical Working Group in June 2016 and the Commission is expecting to finalise the review process towards the end of 2017.