Europe puts spotlight on its waste problem

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This weekend saw the beginning of the European Week for Waste Reduction, a move by EU regions to draw attention to the continent’s waste problem and some of the grassroots initiatives looking for a cure.

Waste reduction week began on Saturday (16 November) and will run until this Sunday. The end goal of the initiative is to change European waste habits, focusing on reducing consumption, and increasing the reuse and recycling of products.

The project is coordinated by the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and Sustainable Waste Management, a network of nearly 100 local and regional authorities created in 1994.

The project is supported by LIFE+, the EU’s fund for the environment, and 21 countries take part, including non-EU states, Benin, Bosnia, Brazil and Iceland.

At the start of the week, Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik issued a call to unleash the recycling potential of Europe’s municipalities, some of which still landfill over 90% of their waste.

"There is enormous potential in reusing and recycling waste. We are making great progress in moving up the waste hierarchy… reducing landfilling and increasing recycling,” he said.

The EU's waste hierarchy defines the order of ways to deal with waste, with the technique with the lowest impact on the environment at the top and the most damaging at the bottom. Prevention is top of the list, followed by preparation for re-use, recycling, recovery, and landfilling.

Landfilled waste pollutes the atmosphere and rivers, and the vast number of discarded products needs to be created from new materials, which in turn has an effect on the environment.

The EU is therefore pushing regions towards a so-called ‘circular economy’ in which as much, or even all, waste is reused or recycled.

“Grassroots initiatives like the European Week of Waste Reduction are an important way of involving everyone in the creation of a zero-waste society," Poto?nik said.

Local

There are a number of initiatives taking place throughout Europe to try to cut back discards.

The Spanish Association of Recyclers for the Social and Solidarity Economy (Aeress), also formed in 1994, has taken part in EU waste reduction week five times. In the 2010 waste reduction week, it won a prize for its role in the so-called ‘waste watchers’, a campaign to raise awareness of the problem among different stakeholders, including shop-owners, in particular.

Aeress also makes up its workforce by hiring the long-term unemployed or socially vulnerable.

The association’s members are present in 14 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions. In September 2010, the Ministry of the Interior designated Aeress an association of public interest.

In connection with waste reduction week, 10 May 2014 will be European Clean-Up Day, a bid to get volunteers to remove litter from their neighbourhood and beaches.

Each European citizen generates an average of 503 kilos of municipal waste every year, but the level ranges from 300 kg in some member states and 700 in others.

According to March report by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, in 2011 some 37% of waste ended up in landfills, 25% was recycled and 15% was composted. Some 23% was burned, typically for energy recovery.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Denmark largely phased out landfilling, while Romania, Bulgaria and Malta dumped nearly all of their municipal waste.

A February report by Friends of the Earth Europe showed that Europe recycled only 25% of its municipal waste.

The European Commission recently issued proposals to cut the use of the most environmentally damaging thin plastic bags, of which every EU citizen uses an estimated 200 every year.

  • 24 November 2013: European Week for Waste Reduction ends
  • 10 May 2014: European Clean-up Day

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