Commission eyes tighter enforcement of EU waste law

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The European Commission does not have enough resources to properly enforce the implementation of the EU’s Landfill Directive and related infringement cases against member states have very little effect, regretted an official at the EU executive, suggesting that the establishment of an EU waste implementation agency would remedy the situation.

“We [the Commission] are good at producing paper and legislation, but member states are in charge of their implementation,” said Commission official Helmut Maurer, addressing a conference on landfill on 16 July. 

“There is very little we can do regarding enforcing implementation,” he added, describing Commission initiatives as mere “paper tigers”.

According to 2008 figures, there are currently 141 waste-related infringement procedures pending against member states, representing 19% of all environmental infringement cases. Meanwhile, Maurer said he finds that infringements “have little effect”, as reaching a court decision can take up to six years in some cases. 

“Separate waste collection is a prerequisite to get landfill rates down” and member states have to opt for recycling, he argued. 

Priority on paper, not in reality 

Maurer further regretted that while waste officially ranks among the EU’s top priorities, “there is not much happening”. The Commission does not even have a unit dedicated to waste, and the issue is dealt with by the EU executive’s sustainable consumption and production unit, where there is only one person in charge of the Landfill Directive, he said. 

Maurer also stressed that national waste management plans are often just “pieces of paper”, as highlighted by the recent “Campania case”. The Campania region of southern Italy had submitted to the Commission a “magnificent plan”, but had done “absolutely nothing” in practice, he said. 

The case has led Commission services to take action and made the EU executive cautious about member states’ waste management plans. “The Commission will monitor much more closely the implementation of these plans in the future,” said Maurer.  

Illegal landfill

According to Commission figures, reported by individual member states, there are some 7,000 illegal landfill sites [landfills operating without a permit] in the EU. But this is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jorge Diaz de Castillo, another Commission official. According to 2005 figures, the highest number of illegal sites are situated in Italy (1,763), 700 of which are considered hazardous. Italy is closely followed by Greece (1,453), France (1,042), Belgian Wallonia (963) and Bulgaria (252). 

However, the Commission believes the real number of illegal sites is much higher, giving estimates of around 5,000 in Italy and 1,500 in France, for example. 

The EU executive sent letters to the EU’s 27 governments this week, asking for an update of the current situation. “We are going to dig out what the situation is,” Diaz de Castillo said. 

Towards a waste implementation agency?

“We might have [to establish] a waste implementation agency” to give the Commission “the means to look at implementation”, the EU executive’s Maurer said. A feasibility study is currently underway to assess whether the agency could serve as a means of enforcing implementation of EU law. 

The results should be available by the end of 2009, after which the Commission may issue a Green Paper on the matter. 

Diaz de Castillo said the agency would “not step on national inspectors’ toes,” but rather help them, possibly by sharing inspection duties.

The EU's Landfill Directive obliges member states to reduce the amount of municipal solid waste in landfill by 65% by 2016 compared to 1995 levels. But it does not give countries binding specifications on what to do with it: a situation that has led most member states to opt for incineration.

According to the European Commission, landfill use remains widespread and constitutes a threat to public health, safety and the environment, especially landfill of hazardous waste. 

Statistics show that 42% of EU municipal waste is landfilled, 38% is recovered and 20% is incinerated. The highest amount of waste is landfilled in Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Malta and Poland. Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria recover the most, while Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, Estonia and Ireland incinerate the largest amounts. 

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