Landfills continue to rule despite EU recycling target


Recycling and composting of waste grew in the last decade across Europe, but most countries still dump the bulk of their garbage despite their obligations to recycle half of trash by 2020, new EU statistics show.

Figures released by the European statistical agency, Eurostat, on Monday (4 March) show that 37% of the average 503 kg of waste each European generates ends up in landfills, 25% is recycled and 15% is composted. Some 23% is burned, typically for energy.

The figures show an enormous gulf between a handful of countries – led by Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium Austria and Denmark – that have largely phased out landfilling while the bulk of other EU nations continue to dump most of their waste. Romania, Bulgaria and Malta sent nearly all their municipal waste in landfills in 2011.

The EU's 2008 Waste Framework Directive requires recycling of at least 50% of household waste by 2020. The legislation calls for a European “recycling society” that apparently hasn’t yet reached all corners of the Union.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Towards a recycling society

Eurostat data showed a shift away from landfill disposal since 2001, although the amount of waste generated per household grew from 486 kg in 2001. In that year, 56% of waste went into landfills, 17% was incinerated, 17% was recycled and 10% was composted.

Wasteful habits

EU countries have come under fire for their waste habits.

A recent study by Friends of the Earth Europe reported estimated that Europe recycles only 25% of its municipal waste, a far-cry from the EU's promise of a resource-efficient economy.

Some 60% of the European Union’s municipal waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions as well as an increasingly unsightly landscape, the environmental campaign group said.

Europeans are particularly wasteful with used textiles, the report said, with 75% of the 5.8 million tonnes discarded every year going to dumps or incineration.

“Europe is still stuck in a system where valuable materials, many of which come at a high environmental and social cost, end up in landfill or incineration,” Ariadna Rodrigo, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said in releasing the group’s waste report on 14 February.

The study called for tighter regulation on landfill use and incineration and higher recycling goals.

Auditors question waste management

Also last month, the European Court of Auditors criticised the EU’s waste management infrastructure, which has received €10.8 billion in structural funding since 2000, for its "limited" effectiveness.

>> Read: Auditors slam Europe’s waste system – for waste

Refuse can contain important raw materials and resources, and the EU has introduced directives to enforce common waste management standards and targets. It has also co-financed waste management infrastructures in specific regions.

But “the effectiveness of EU funding for municipal waste management infrastructures was limited due to the poor implementation of supporting measures,” the auditors report said.

Refuse was deposited in landfill sites “without adequate treatment,” the report found, and “insufficient financial amounts” were put aside for the closing of landfill sites, and their after-care costs.

“Europeans are consuming more, and producing more waste,” said Ovidiu Ispir, the report’s author. “The EU Waste Directive requires that member states treat and dispose of waste without risk to water, air and soil and without causing noise or odour problems.”

Figures for 2011

According to Eurostat figures for 2011:

  • The member states with the highest share of landfilled municipal waste were Romania (99%), Bulgaria (94%), Malta (92%), Latvia and Lithuania (both 88%).
  • The highest shares of incinerated waste were in Denmark (54%), Sweden (51%), Belgium (42%), Luxembourg and the Netherlands (both 38%), Germany (37%), France and Austria (both 35%).
  • Recycling was most common in Germany (45% of waste), Ireland (37%), Belgium (36%), Slovenia (34%), Sweden (33%), the Netherlands (32%) and Denmark (31%).
  • The highest composting rates for municipal waste were Austria (34%), the Netherlands (28%), Belgium and Luxembourg (both 20%), Spain and France (both 18%).
  • Recycling and composting of municipal waste together accounted for more than 50% of waste treated in Germany (63%), Austria (62%), the Netherlands (61%) and Belgium (57%).

The EU's 2005 Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste sets a long-term goal for the EU to become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource. 

The bloc's revised Waste Framework Directive, introduced a binding 'waste hierarchy' defining the order of priority for treating waste. The waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, and recovery, with waste disposal only a last resort.

To comply with the directive, EU member states are obliged to draw up specific waste management plans after analysing their current waste management situations.

Countries are also required to establish special waste prevention programmes by the end of 2013, in a drive to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste.

  • By 2014: Commission to revise 2020 recycling targets set in the Waste Framework Directive

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