Towards a recycling society


This article is part of our special report Resource efficiency: towards a circular economy.

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.

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.

Too much legislation, not enough implementation 

Persistent non-compliance with European waste laws is a problem for the EU. 

A recent European Commission communication on implementing EU environmental law notes that certain member states still need to "end illegal landfilling, put in place adequate networks of regulated waste facilities, prevent illegal waste shipments and intensify public awareness of the goals of preventing, reusing and recycling waste". The Commission also urges member states to plan for and invest more in collecting and treating urban waste water.

An EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) study of lifecycle assessment for municipal waste management notes that more initiatives are required to overcome "financial, technical and psychological barriers for increased recycling of separately collected waste fractions". 

A recent European Environment Agency (EEA) study on recycling levels of municipal waste states that all the old EU member states and almost all of the new ones have increased their recycling of municipal waste in the last ten years. Meanwhile, "significant differences" between recycling levels persist. The study indicates that the highest levels of recycling (>50%) are in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and the lowest (<11%) in Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. 

Glass, paper and cardboard, plastics and metals are generally considered the backbone of recycling in the EU, but there seems to be room for improvement regarding the recycling of biowaste. Biowaste alone accounts for some 30%-45% of municipal solid waste in Europe, but a majority of it ends up in landfills or incinerators. Meanwhile, burning biowaste is very energy-consuming, as it is mainly composed of water and needs to be heated to high temperatures to be burned. 

Benefits of recycling society

The reuse, recovery and recycling of materials benefits both the environment and the economy.

According to the Commission, the environmental benefits include:      

  • A reduced amount of landfilled and incinerated waste;
  • reduced consumption of primary natural resources and thus reduced CO2 emissions, as extracting virgin materials is a very energy and fossil fuel-intensive process. For example, making aluminium from recycled materials uses some 85% less energy than making it from virgin materials; 
  • reduced CO2 emissions from less waste in incinerators and landfills;
  • improved natural resource, habitat and forest conservation, as recycling reduces the need for wood, water, minerals and other raw materials;
  • quality compost from recycled biowaste for soils.

Moreover, investing in waste management and recycling can turn the waste problem into an economic opportunity. According to the Commission, these include:      

  • Reduced energy demand from different industrial sectors;
  • using biowaste for energy production, such as biogas and ethanol, thus decreasing dependency on fossil fuels and increasing the EU's domestic energy supply (EURACTIV 21/10/08). Waste buried in landfill sites undergoes anaerobic digestion and generates gases: so-called landfill gases (LFGs). LFGs comprise almost 50% methane, which is the same gas found in natural gas. These gases can be burned and seen as a source of renewable energy for generating electricity and producing heat.
  • reduced demand for energy can help mitigate the effects of increasing oil prices;
  • job creation, as recycling is said to create from five to seven times more jobs than incineration and ten times more jobs than disposal at landfills, and;
  • new value creation through recovered materials.

While the EEA notes that the recycling markets have been negatively affected by the current economic crisis and that lower demand for waste materials "might hamper the further positive development towards more recycling in the EU," the recycling sector is expected to grow rapidly in the face of escalating commodity prices. 

Towards lifecycle thinking

The Commission believes that the EU needs to take a "resource approach to waste". This includes moving to lifecycle thinking, adopting waste prevention policies and increasing recycling and recovery of waste, for which economic instruments "have particular potential," it says. 

The EU executive wants to move towards a European recycling society by "developing common environmental requirements for waste recycling and allowing waste for recovery to move more freely" between the EU 27. 

Action by member states alone would render the internal market in waste recycling "inoperable" and damage cooperation on other forms of waste treatment, leading to "significant economic costs," the Commission argues.  

According to the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), waste management guidance can be delivered more efficiently at EU level, as geographical conditions vary and the diverse nature of impacts/benefits on a regional/global scale are difficult to grasp at local level. Meanwhile, local impact variations would still need to be considered regarding the location of facilities or local needs for either heat or compost, the Commission argues. 

Moreover, the creation of an EU market for waste recovery requires the development of common EU waste treatment standards. Common standards would need to determine preferable methods of treatment for a given waste stream, emissions from waste-management processes and the quality of recovered materials. 

Need for financial incentives, technical progress

According to the Commission, decoupling environmental degradation from economic growth will require both technological progress and the use of financial instruments. 

A number of stakeholders are also calling for financial incentives to encourage and promote recycling. Such incentives include either raising taxes or making citizens and businesses pay the exact price for recycling different materials. This can be done by fixing specific prices for rubbish bags: bags containing recycled material would be cheaper than bags where all rubbish is mixed. As for businesses, some NGOS are calling for the mandatory principle of 100% financial responsibility of the producer to be introduced. 

The concept of 'Individual Producer Responsibility' is the subject of much controversy. Parts of the strategy seek to reduce the total environmental impact of a product by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for its entire lifecycle, and especially for its take-back, recycling and final disposal.

Requiring authorities to consider the recyclability of products like paper or electrical equipment in their procurement are also part of the solution. Differentiated VAT could be applied for example and virgin paper could be imposed a higher VAT than recycled one.  

In parallel to financial incentives, science and R&D also have a part to play. They can help move towards more efficient recovery and reuse of materials and prevent waste from being created in the first place. Nanotechnology, for example, has the potential to be used for waste-water treatment.

Lastly, ways could be explored to make landfill and incineration more expensive. Work on common standards is considered key to boosting the creation of EU-wide recycling markets. 

Klaus Koegler, head of unit of sustainable production and consumption at the European Commission, said waste management oculd contribute to reducing environmental pressure. "That can be done by making less waste and by using the waste that we are creating in a more efficient way. A main step in doing that is of course to improve the way and to improve the efficiency with which we are re-using waste in the sense of recycling and energy recovery." 

Jos Delbeke, deputy director general at the Commission's environment deparment, said biowaste recycling was not happening "after two decades of intensive legislating". "We have to admit that implementation records of our environmental directives are not good and in this sense better implementation on existing legislation is part of the answer," he said.  

Delbeke added that the barriers to this must be identified, while considering industry's contribution, the role of technology and the role of specific incentives for households and businesses.

Astrid Klug, state secretary at the German Federal Environment Ministry, said there are only a handful of countries with modern systems and most have a lot of "catching up to do" on waste management. "Around 30-40% of household waste is biowaste and remains unused, dumped into landfills," she said, calling for mandatory separate collection of biowaste.

Managing biowaste can considerably contribute to member states' climate goals and "we should not be blind to using biowaste for other environmental benefits like soil quality, biodiversity and binding carbon in soil. Energy should not be the sole requirement," she argued.  

Luc Vancker from the Flanders Public Waste Agency (OVAM) noted that "biowaste that is not landfilled is not necessarily well-handled," describing failure to use biowaste as "a missed opportunity". 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation "requires producers to change their design, production and marketing activities". Consumers will also need to ponder environmental and social concerns - in addition to price, convenience and quality - when making consumption decisions, UNEP added. 

In response to the economic slowdown and climate and environmental crises, UNEP launched the Global Green New Deal (GGND), which aims to create a post-recession economy that is sustainable in the medium and long term, while stimulating growth, creating jobs and tackling poverty. 

While the New Deal considers materials efficiency and waste management as important areas of the 'green' economy, it states that "they are either not able to deliver 'quick wins'," or that "they have not reached a state of widespread dissemination of process knowledge and technology so that governance and risks are easily managed". 

The initiative encourages governments "to legislate towards internalising the costs of externalities in this arena" to help turn the waste management and recycling sector into a "highly-profitable and labour-intensive business sector" covering the safe and clean handling, transfer, storage and disposal of waste and promoting the 3 'r's – reduction, re-use, and recycling.  

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO, observed: "Despite decades of harmonisation efforts, there is scarcely any environmental policy field where national differences in waste policy could be greater than the waste sector. This is due to strong cultural differences on how to deal with waste. Waste issues are strongly associated with everyday practices, consumption behaviour and lifestyles." 

The NGO believes that Individual Producer Responsibility is "a powerful tool" for achieving EU objectives on better resource efficiency and waste management. It is a "key tool for product innovation" and creates upstream incentives for ecological product design, improving corporate credibility and reputation, enhancing business development opportunities and facilitating dialogue and partnership with key stakeholders, the EEB argues. 

The NGO strongly recommends that the concept be applied when developing further legislation on waste and when revising existing laws. 

Regarding leadership on the matter, the EEB suggests strengthening the use of national innovations for waste prevention, such as "ecological tax reform, producer responsibility, ecological product policy, chemicals control policy, strict requirements for collection, recycling and treatment and safe final depositing, and information instruments" to reconcile ecological and internal-market objectives in the long run.

"Member states should use the opportunity for national leadership in waste prevention policy more systematically and the Commission should not be too restrictive in containing such initiatives by giving the internal market objective superiority over environmental objectives," EEB further argues, adding that the "Commission tends to shift the responsibility for waste prevention to member states, which themselves have little scope for action because this would contradict internal market principles". 

The EEB also suggests that there is strong pressure to undermine producer responsibility systems with the easier and cheaper way out that is incineration.

The Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and Sustainable Resource management (ACR+) notes that the revised EU Waste Framework Directive merely states that member states should encourage separate collection. "There are no economic incentives for recycling today. We need legal obligations for selective collection in order to create a true recycling market and society," it argues. 

According to ACR+, the main paths towards a recycling society include selective collection obligations, recycling rates with 100% financial producer responsibility, incineration and landfill taxes or bans, green public procurement criteria, pay-as-you-throw schemes, differentiated VAT, exchange of good practices and promotion of eco-consumption by local and regional authorities.

ACR+ President Jean-Pierre Hannequart said that it is important to establish a relationship between the money or taxes paid and the amount of waste recycled in order to define the exact cost of waste management. The revised EU Waste Framework Directive's extended producer responsibility covers a lot of different issues, he said, but does not establish any clear financial responsibility. It also allows member states to choose between different obligations, Hannequart said, noting that "nothing is mandatory" in the directive.

Existing EU legislation on recycling sets some recycling targets for packaging waste, electrical and electronic waste, batteries and cars, "but this is clearly not enough," Hannequart continued, calling for clear economic instruments to increase recycling. "The most efficient one is to increase the cost of waste by increasing taxes on incineration and landfilling. This would create an immediate incentive for the recycling market industry to develop. Public authorities should also establish 'pay-as-you-throw' schemes to encourage households themselves to recycle, as it is more practical to have separate collection at source rather than separating the waste afterwards. Separate collection at source also leads to better quality waste," Hannequart summarised.

Gunnel Klingberg, secretary-general of Municipal Waste Europe,  which represents national public waste associations, said the EU waste hierarchy and waste management system should take into account local conditions. "There is no need for European legislation on this issue," she said. 

Member states and municipalities already take responsibility for the recycling society, she said, adding that a complete waste management system requires many different treatment operations and needs to take into account both collection and use of the end-product. "It can never rely on just one waste management operation," she said.

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) also notes that local and regional authorities are responsible for a significant part of the implementation of EU waste legislation, and therefore "need certainty as for the costly medium to long-term investments to ensure quality waste management". 

CEMR is in favour of a strong internal market for quality recovered and recycled products and thus favours strict standards on the quality of such products. 

The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP) stresses that it  respects the waste hierarchy, giving waste prevention, reuse and recycling priority over energy recovery (waste incineration). However, it notes that there is always some remaining waste which cannot be reused or recycled in a technically, hygienically or economically viable way and that this waste, which would otherwise be consigned to landfills, should be turned into energy via incineration (Waste-to-Energy). "This replaces fossil fuels which would have otherwise been used to produce this energy. At the same time Waste-to-Energy avoids methane emissions from landfills, which are much more significant to global warming than CO2." 

CEWEP argues that "EU member states who have most successfully reduced dependence on landfill have done this by a combination of both high recycling rates and Waste-to-Energy (incineration)." 

European consumer organisation BEUC expressed concerns over recycling mercury contained in energy-saving lamps. "As the eco-design measure for domestic lighting will lead to an increase in mercury-containing lamps in our homes, we consider it necessary to set legal requirements at the level of best-available technology with regard to mercury in lamps. Moreover, free of charge take-back systems for mercury-containing lamps should be set up in shops." 

Increased need for the collection and recycling rate of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) also requires offering consumers easy solutions to do so, BEUC said, calling for the establishment of a collection system in shops, similar to the take-back system for batteries, to increase the CFL collection rates. 

William R. Duncan from the recycling lobby Assure (Association for the Sustainable Use and Recovery of Resources in Europe) said: "I think we are reaching the time where we could apply the cost of the environmental impact to the price of the product. Let's take the example of two cars. This car consumes less, has fewer emissions, and therefore has no surcharges. This is a larger, heavier car, then there's an added €100 reflecting the environmental cost that comes with that cost being made in society."

Kees Wielenga  from FFACT Management Consultants said: "For industrial waste, a large majority can be recycled. For construction and demolition waste, it is easy to recycle up to 90-95% of the construction and demolition waste. The most complicated waste stream is actually the waste from households, because there are so many different materials, different products, that you have to set up a quite elaborate system to continue to improve recycling. "

  • 21 Dec. 2005: Commission adopts Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste.
  • June 2008: Agreement on new recycling targets for municipal waste and construction and demolition waste. The agreement is part of the new EU Waste Framework Directive. 
  • 12 Dec. 2008: Revised Framework Directive on Waste enters into force. 
  • 3 Dec. 2008: Commission adopts Green Paper on managing biowaste in the EU.
  • April 2009: European Environment Agency overview of municipal waste recycling in the EU 27. 
  • 25 June 2009: Council adopts conclusions on Green Paper on biowaste (EURACTIV 29/06/09).
  • By end 2009: Commission impact assessment of different policy options for separate EU legislation on biowaste.
  • 31 Aug. 2010: Europe as a recycling society - European recycling map published.
  • By 12 Dec. 2010: Deadline for transposing Waste Framework Directive into national legislation. 
  • 26 Jan. 2011: Commission adopts flagship initiative on resource efficiency.
  • 13 Sept. 2011: Commission to adopt roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe.
  • 2012: Revision of the EU waste acquis with a full screening of the EU recycling directives.
  • By 2014: Member states to establish special waste prevention programmes, under the revised Waste Framework Directive.
  • By 2015: Commission to review measures and targets of Waste Framework Directive with a view to, if necessary, reinforcing the targets and considering the setting of targets for other waste streams.
  • By 2015: Member states to set up separate collection schemes for paper, metal, plastic and glass under Waste Framework Directive. 
  • By 2020: EU target to increase the re-use and recycling of household waste materials (at least paper, metal, plastic and glass) to a minimum of overall 50% by weight.
  • By 2020: EU target to increase re-use, recycling and other material recovery of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste to a minimum of 70% by weight.

Subscribe to our newsletters