EU Science Hub

Waste and Circular Economy

For a circular economy it is essential to recycle materials from waste in order 'to close the loop'. The recovery of energy from waste also plays an important role. Waste disposal should be phased out and, where it is unavoidable, it must be adequately controlled to be safe for human health and the environment.

As the EU has given priority to circular economy policies, the JRC has been providing research support on the waste-related aspects of the circular economy. To that end, it has been working with stakeholder experts in carefully structured and transparent consultation processes. The outputs include proposing end-of-waste criteria for certain waste streams, as well as safety and quality requirements for recycled materials; producing reference information on best available techniques and best practices; and carrying out techno-economic and environmental assessments of recycling processes, waste-to-energy options, and waste disposal operations.

End-of-waste criteria

The drawing up of end-of-waste criteria consists of thorough techno-economic-environmental assessments that verify when the recyclable waste material is safe for the environment and is of a high enough quality to no longer have to be classified as waste. All JRC reports with technical proposals on end-of-waste criteria are listed here.

Three end-of-waste regulations have been adopted based on the JRC reports: one on ferrous and aluminium scrap, one on copper and copper alloy scrap and one on waste glass (glass cullet).

Quality and safety of fertilisers derived from waste or residues

In order to keep valuable nutrients from waste or residues in the agro-economic cycle (and reduce dependency on fossil nutrient sources), there is a need for quality and safety criteria. As part of its work on end-of-waste, the JRC has proposed criteria for compost and digestate from biogas production. The JRC criteria have proved useful for revising the Fertilising Products Regulation in order to include new rules to facilitate the access of organic and waste-based fertilisers to the EU Single Market.

In a project called 'STRUBIAS' (the name refers to the acronym for the original working title, STRUvite, BIochar, and Ashes), the JRC has also drafted recovery rules and carried out a market study for precipitated phosphate salts and derivates, thermal oxidation materials and derivates, and pyrolysis and gasification materials. This work has been done in view of their possible inclusion in the revised Fertilising Products Regulation.

Furthermore, the JRC has been developing criteria for the safe use of processed manure in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones ('SAFEMANURE' project).

Best available techniques for the management of extractive waste

The JRC has produced the EU reference document for the management of waste from extractive industries (MWEI BREF). This document will help competent authorities when setting permit conditions for extractive waste facilities in the EU to ensure safety and lower the environmental impact from the management of waste from extractive industries. The document covers the management of extractive waste from all onshore extractive industries, from small quarries to large metal mines, and including oil and gas exploration and production.

The JRC has produced a report on best environmental management practice in the waste management sector. The report is based on the analysis of what the most environmentally advanced organisations in the sector do to protect the environment and also provides information on environmental performance indicators and benchmarks of excellence. Within the waste management sector, the report is especially relevant for organisations managing municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste, or healthcare waste. Based on the report, the Commission intends to adopt a formal sectoral reference document within the framework of the EU Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). (There are similar documents for other sectors of the economy too. For more information, click here.) The EMAS sectoral reference document will be complementary to the reference documents on best available techniques (BREFs) for waste treatment and for waste incineration under the Industrial Emissions Directive.

Circular economy of electric vehicle batteries

Currently, electric vehicle batteries still represent relatively small volumes of waste and the technologies used – mostly based on Li-ion – are evolving rapidly; however, few of these are now recycled, and with current trends in the deployment of "e-mobility" (pushed by ambitious policies on climate, energy, transport, and air quality) the volumes of batteries reaching end-of-life could soon pose significant challenges.
The JRC is therefore investigating how to manage the environmental impacts of EV batteries and ensure that, beyond manufacturing, the EU is set to benefit from the end-of-life value chain and move towards circularity – by developing sustainable approaches to collecting, transporting, reusing, refurbishing, and ultimately recycling these batteries. If properly addressed, this could help retain valuable resources and materials within the EU economy as well as create sustainable economic and employment impacts.

Efficiency of waste sorting and recycling operations

The JRC is working to better understand how the efficiency and quality of waste sorting and recycling can be further improved. In a first step the focus is on household packaging waste and the research tasks include developing a set of parameters or classifications that allow the quality of recycling to be characterised

More value from plastic recycling

Currently, much of the plastic waste generated is incinerated or recycled into products of relatively low value. The reasons include high impurity rates, chemical contamination, the presence of composite and multi-layer plastics and, generally speaking, the unknown plastic composition. The JRC is working to improve the availability of information for policy makers on how to obtain much greater value from plastics recycling than is achieved at the moment. It is looking into options like better aligned quality incentives along the waste processing chains, new technologies for automated detection and sorting of plastics, chemical plastics recycling, or classification systems for recycling qualities

Technical potential of waste-to-energy

The JRC study "Towards a better exploitation of the technical potential of waste to energy" 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 developments 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.

Assessment of waste disposal operations

On behalf of DG Environment, the JRC has been carrying out a systematic assessment of the different types of waste disposal in order to have an overview of the situation across the Member States. The research looks into the impacts that each of the waste disposal operations may have on the circular economy, as well as on human health and the environment. Moreover, it explores areas for improvement and the role that EU regulation could play in addressing them.