Commission opts for hands-off approach on waste policy

The proposed new waste strategy seeks to cut waste generation and boost recycling and recovery through a new ‘life-cycle’ approach. But it leaves the thorny issue of recycling and prevention targets to EU states.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas on 21 December presented the Commission’s new ‘Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling’. The strategy shifts the focus of existing EU waste policies from preventing pollution to a new approach that takes account of the whole life-cycle of products.

“We have to modernise our approach to waste, we need new policies to prevent waste, and we must build a solid market for recycling,” Dimas said. 

As a first step, a revision of the EU Waste Framework Directive has been submitted to Council and Parliament for approval. The new draft directive merges with the existing directives on hazardous waste and repeals the Waste Oils Directive which is now considered outdated. Here are the main elements of the proposed new strategy:

  • Life-cycle approach: The strategy proposes to look beyond the pollution caused by waste to consider its potential contribution to a more sustainable use of natural resources and raw materials. This aspect is dealt with in a separate strategy, also presented on 21 December, on the sustainable use of natural resources
  • Prevention:  Member states will be required to develop waste prevention policies that will “reach out to the individuals and businesses” responsible for waste generated in the first place. These will have to be adopted within three years following the adoption of the revised waste framework directive. Follow-up reports will have to be submitted every three years afterwards. 
  • Recycling: EU-wide environmental standards on recycling will be adopted to “support the development of an EU market for secondary (recycled) materials”
  • Simplifying existing legislation: This is also a major priority which will apply along the principles of the Commission’s ‘better regulation’ initiative.
  • Targets: The new strategy does not impose specific waste recycling or prevention targets. The Commission therefore says it is “not expected to result in any quantifiable financial costs” on member states and businesses
  • Incineration: A revision of the IPPC Directive (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control) will be tabled that will set “an ambitious benchmark” to improve energy recovery from municipal incinerators. The Commission says the new energy efficiency benchmark “will determine whether an incinerator can be identified as a recovery facility instead of a disposal facility”.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) expressed its dismay at the strategies' lack of ambition and content. "The Waste Strategy package released today […] lacks the elements to tackle waste prevention and resource use properly," said EEB Secretary General John Hontelez. According to the EEB, the proposal "fails to clarify the five levels of waste hierarchy - prevention, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and disposal". Critically for the European environmental federation, the package also "abandons the existing waste stream approach - where producers are held responsible - in favour of a more complex materials approach where producer responsibility cannot practically be used". 

"We also see a dangerous trend that the Commission is shifting away from harmonised EU waste management policies towards the deharmonisation and re-nationalisation of waste management," said EEB waste and resources officer Melissa Shinn.

Some figures presented with the Commission's new waste strategy:

  • 1.3 bn tonnes/year: total waste generated in the EU
  • 530kg/year: average waste production per person in EU-15 (300-350 kg in EU-10) 
  • 75 bn euros/year: cost of municipal waste and hazardous waste management alone
  • Over 100 bn euros/year: estimated turnover of EU waste management and recycling sector
  • Increase in total waste generation outpaced GDP growth between 1990 and 1995 in the EU-25 (10% against 6.5%)
  • Municipal waste increased by 19% between 1995 and 2003, the single fastest growing waste stream

A host of directives already exist that deal with specific waste 'streams'. These include legislation on end-of-life vehicles, waste from electric and electronic equipment (WEEE), waste batteries, sewage sludge and packaging waste.

  • 2006: Parliament and Council expected to examine the proposed revised waste framework directive (first reading)

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