Eurostat figures show that the 10 countries that have joined the Union since 2004 send the vast majority of their waste to landfills. But the data also shows that older member countries – including financially troubled Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain – dump more than half their rubbish.
All of the municipal waste in Bulgaria is sent to landfills, and nearly all in Lithuania and Romania, according to the Eurostat data.
Europeans generate on average more than 500 kilograms of waste per year, some 300 kilograms of which is food and plant rubbish, according to EU figures.
"Proper waste management is vital for our environment, but it also makes economic sense; waste is a valuable resource if it is well managed,” Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said in a statement emailed to EurActiv on Friday.
“Our main piece of European legislation on waste - the Waste Framework Directive - prohibits uncontrolled disposal of waste and sets a clear waste management hierarchy, obliging member states to promote waste prevention, re-use and recycling over landfilling and incineration,” he said.
Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden have eliminated all or nearly all their landfill disposal through incineration, recycling and composting, figures compiled by Eurostat show.
2020 compliance uncertain
The statistics indicate that the EU has a long way to go to meet targets set by the 2008 Waste Framework Directive, which calls for recycling of at least 50% of household waste by 2020. The legislation calls for a European “recycling society” that apparently hasn’t yet reached all corners of the Union.
The EU’s overall recycling rate stood at 25%, while Germany (45%), Belgium (40%) and Slovenia (39%) are closest to meeting the goals.
Despite recent calls by the European Parliament to reduce food waste and the amount of organic material going into dumps, just 15% of Europe’s organic material is composted, the Eurostat figures show.
The figures, released on 27 March, are based on 2010 numbers - the latest available.Performance varies widely across the 27 countries. Both Finland and the United Kingdom send nearly half their waste to dumps, and their rates of recycling fall below other northern countries.
Malta, an island state, landfills 86% of its municipal waste. Austria composts 40% of its rubbish, making it the clear leader in the EU. The Netherlands, at 28%, is second.
‘Green’ land prefers burning waste
Denmark, which has made a clean environment a centrepiece of its current rotating EU presidency, burns 54% of its municipal rubbish – much of it to generate electricity - the highest rate in Europe. But the country trails nine countries in the rate of recycling.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has sought to crack down on countries failing to incorporate the waste directive into national law.
In January, the Commission threatened Germany with court action for failing to adopt provisions in the law and is now reviewing the country’s response. There are also open cases involving Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Luxembourg, Hungary, Poland, Finland and Slovakia.
Also in January, the Commission identified a number of landfills in Cyprus and Greece where pollution and plastic bag litter are blamed for threats to birds, turtles and other wildlife. EU officials have also expressed concern about the operation of illegal landfills in Greece.
A study carried out for the Commission indicates that full implementation of EU waste directive could save €72 billion a year.
“That's why our priority is to improve the implementation of the existing legislation across the EU by bringing landfilling down and increasing recycling,” Potočnik said.
“But don't forget, implementing and enforcing EU environmental law is a shared task with national, regional and local authorities."