Waste Prevention and Recycling


European responses to waste generation have been fragmented (twelve directives since the 1970s) and inefficient until now. The Commission's proposed Thematic Strategy (21 Dec. 2005) sets up a framework for a holistic review of the existing EU waste policy, based on prevention and recycling.

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

Despite these efforts, the EU is faced with a growing problem of waste management: 

  • 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)   
  • 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
  • 75 bn euros/year: cost of municipal waste and hazardous waste management alone

The waste management and recycling sector also represents a business opporutnity, with an annual turnover estimated at €100 billion in the EU.

In 2005, the Commission presented its new Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling (EURACTIV 21/12/05), of which the proposal for a new EU Waste Directive is a constitutive element. The text reviews and streamlines existing legislation within a single, comprehensive framework.

The Commission's original plans towards a Thematic Strategy on Waste (2003) were articulated around four 'building blocks':

  • Instruments to promote waste prevention: e.g. information exchange on national incentive systems for consumers, waste prevention plans;
  • Instruments to promote waste recycling: e.g. landfill taxes, producer responsibility, tradeable certificates (used in the UK), "Pay as you Throw" schemes, incentive systems;
  • Measures to close the waste recycling standards gap in order to create a level playing field for recycling: e.g. extending the IPPC directive to the whole waste sector or determining quality standards for recycling;
  • Accompanying measures to promote waste prevention and recycling: improving the legal framework, promoting research and development, promoting demand for recycled materials. 

The Commission's 'Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling' presented on 21 December 2005 relies on 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 (COM (2005) 667 final) 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.

The "Recycling Coalition" - a group of sectoral and environmental stakeholders concerned with the promotion of recycling activities - reacted to the proposed revision of the Directive on Waste (COM (2005) 667 final) in April 2006. Though generally welcoming the EU commitment to become a 'recycling society,' it regrets the lack of a clear definition of recycling and "a waste hierarchy promoting recycling over energy recovery." It also calls for EU harmonised recycling targets and for output (rather than input) assessment of recycling actions. 

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