Towards a recycling society


An EU strategy on preventing and recycling waste aims to pave the way towards a recycling society by decoupling economic growth from natural resource use. But questions remain over whether the issue should be dealt with at national or European level, and on how to reconcile the EU's ecological and internal market objectives in the long run.

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As the world's population rises and living standards increase, the global economy is using more and more natural resources, including water, wood, minerals and fossil fuels. Indeed the EU, as one of the world's largest economic blocs, ranks among their largest consumers. 

Natural-resource exploitation has a varied impact on the environment. The European Commission underlines that environmentally sustainable economic growth cannot be assured by simply reducing the amount of resources used. The EU's new member states still need to build a lot of new infrastructure, housing and other durable goods, for example, and are thus destined to consume even more resources to sustain their development. The same goes for emerging economies like China and India, the Commission notes. 

According to the EU executive, natural-resource use by tonnage will quadruple by 2050 worldwide and at the current rate of depletion, the world cannot satisfy demand for resources from "virgin" materials alone. 

One of the environmental impacts of exploiting natural resources is an increased amount of waste. Every European produces some 500 kg of household waste per year. Despite a considerable increase in recycling, the amount of waste is not falling as populations grow and living standards rise (EurActiv 10/03/09). 

The Commission wants Europe to strive to decouple economic growth from the environmental impact of resource exploitation used to sustain it across all sectors of the economy. According to the EU executive, the solution is to use less resources by making more out of a given amount. 

Policy framework: A fragmented landscape

There are two strategies dealing with waste management at EU level:

In addition, the bloc's recently revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD) introduces a 'waste hierarchy' and a new approach to waste management, especially focusing on prevention. For example, EU member states are obliged to establish special waste prevention programmes by 2014. It also aims to encourage the re-use, recycling and recovery of waste materials, accepting safe disposal only as a last resort.  

The WFD is complemented by specific legislation on waste water and electrical and electronic waste, as well as laws governing waste from packagingmining and batteries. Other areas covered include shipments and treatment operations, like landfill or incineration.

The Union's drive towards a recycling society is part of a wider strategy and policies on Sustainable Consumption and Production, which seeks to maximise the potential of business to transform environmental challenges into economic opportunities while providing a 'better deal' for consumers. 

Furthermore, the bloc's Integrated Product Policy seeks to minimise products' environmental impact by looking at their lifecycles - from the extraction of natural resources via their design, manufacture, assembly, marketing, distribution, sale and use to their eventual disposal as waste - taking action where it is most effective.

Overall, diverting waste away from landfill is an important element of EU policy to improve the use of resources.