Ministers favour ‘flexible’ approach to waste

After difficult negotiations and despite considerable previous disagreement among member states, the Environment Council on 28 June reached an unanimous decision on the revision of the Waste Framework Directive, sparking NGO criticism and industry applause.

  • Derogations on waste trade

Largely in response to Danish concerns about increased waste imports from Germany, the Council included the possibility for member states to limit incoming shipments of waste, in cases “where it has been established that such shipments would have the consequence that national waste […] would have to be disposed of” rather than “recovered” through incineration. 

  • Disposal versus recovery

Ministers voted essentially in favour of allowing a number of municipal incinerators to be defined as “recovery” operations based on an energy efficiency formula put forward by the Commission in its original proposal. 

In order to take into account “local climatic conditions”, Council favours a case-by-case application of the efficiency formula, to be decided by committee procedure.

Parliament had initially rejected the efficiency formula, arguing that incinerators should only be defined as recovery operations if their principle purpose is energy production, whether from waste or other fuels. It is not clear whether Parliament will reject the Commission’s formula in its second reading.

  • Waste hierarchy

Council agreed to maintain a so-called “five-step” hierarchy that was inserted into the proposal upon suggestion by Parliament in first reading. The hierarchy sets out an order or priority for dealing with waste, with the following order of preference:

  1. Prevention of waste;
  2. re-use of products;
  3. recycling/composting;
  4. recovery of energy by incineration, and;
  5. landfill disposal.

Both the Commission and the Council argue that this hierarchy should be applied “flexibly”. Parliament suggests that any departure from the hierarchy must be based on an independent life-cycle analysis.

  • Recycling, broadly defined

Although ministers chose to defer discussions on the issue of specific recycling targets, the Council supported the Commission’s view that a “broad definition” of recycling is the most appropriate, allowing member states more room to reach recycling targets set in future.

The Parliament has stated that it intends to remain firm on the issue of recycling targets, and the stage may be set for considerable disagreement with Council on this issue during Parliament’s second reading.


The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP) "is optimistic that the Parliament [...] will lend its support to classifying efficient Waste-to-Energy plants as recovery operations. That means higher up the waste hierarchy than landfilling, helping to reduce Europe’s dependence on both landfills and fossil fuels."

Plastics Europe and the European Automobile Manufacturer's Association (ACEA) published a joint statement welcoming the Council's "broad definition" of recycling, saying: "We believe that only a broad and consistent recycling definition, as proposed by the EU Commission, will create the legal certainty needed to ensure the development, investment and operation of innovative recycling plants."

In a joint press release, Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) and the European Environment Bureau (EEB) called the vote "a serious climb-down on more than 30 years of European waste policy". 

The environmental groups are concerned in particular that Council is seeking to further decentralise waste management in the EU, and are opposed to the reclassification of municipal waste incineration from "disposal" to "recovery", favouring instead Parliament's original position that only operations with the primary purpose of recovery can be classified as such.

Concerning the five-step hierarchy, the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO) believes that the Parliament's proposed life-cycle analysis deviation clause "would be too costly, time-consuming and bureaucratic. The approach taken by the Council is much more flexible, since it is based on life-cycle thinking and takes into account technical feasibility, economical viability as well as overall environmental, human health, economic and social impacts".

The Parliament's rapporteur on the file, UK Conservative MEP Caroline Jackson, says that Parliament wants a clear reference to the five-step hierarchy in the final text, "with a sensible amount of flexibility based on life cycle thinking where departures from the hierarchy show a greater overall benefit to the environment".

Concerning the classification of facilities, Jackson believes that "many MEPs will be reluctant to back the idea that waste to energy can qualify as 'recovery' unless the Council accepts our amendments on recycling targets".

UEAPME,  which represents small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and crafts in the EU, said: "The environment ministers rightly scrapped unworkable and aleatory EU-wide waste quantitative targets, which would have been disproportionately burdensome for smaller businesses. However, the compromise failed to clarify the status of small companies dealing with non-hazardous waste on an occasional basis, and left important decisions on technical aspects to meetings taking place behind closed doors with no stakeholders' involvement."


Waste and recycling policies are a cornerstone of EU environmental protection efforts, but the policy framework has been criticised as being too fragmented and inefficient. The current revision of the Waste Framework Directive seeks to address this issue (see our LinksDossier).

The Environment Council addressed in particular the challenge of establishing a system of efficient and environmentally friendly incineration of waste, characterised by energy recovery and cross-border trade in waste between EU member states.

In the run-up to the Council meeting, Denmark and France had led a blocking minority of states concerned about trade in waste and about the method used for defining waste recovery versus disposal operations (EURACTIV 27/06/07).

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