Waste and recycling: EU can do better


Despite a marked improvement in some countries, new statistics show that waste keeps piling up in most EU member states, suggesting that further effort is required for the bloc to become a "recycling society" that avoids waste and uses it as a resource.

Let's start with the good news: waste generation levels have fallen dramatically in several EU countries, led by France, Sweden, Romania and Poland.

In total, annual waste generation in the EU-27 decreased by 10% between 2006 and 2008.

However, a review of the EU's 2005 waste strategy, published yesterday (19 January), shows that in most countries, waste generation is continuing to increase or is at best stabilising.

As for recycling rates, the progress report shows huge differences between EU countries, where recycling rates can vary from a few percent up to 70%.

Whilst recycling rates vary from one waste stream to another, overall recycling is on the increase. In 2008, waste recycling was estimated at 38% – marking progress of 5% compared to 2005 and 18% compared to 1995.

Waste as a resource

While for many, waste still represents a problem that needs to be buried or burned, for some it is a resource which, through proper sorting and treatment, can bring financial returns, said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik.

"A mobile phone contains gold, platinum, palladium and copper: all resources that we have too little of in Europe. A tonne of these handsets would contain about 280 grams of gold, 140 grams of platinum and palladium and 140 pounds of copper," Poto?nik said after dropping off his old cell phone to be recycled at one of the world's largest waste recovery and recycling plants, Umicore in Hoboeken, Belgium.

Electrical and electronic equipment waste, ranging from light bulbs to PCs, mobile phones and other consumer gadgets, constitutes one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. The growth rate of this type of waste is estimated to be three times the growth rate of municipal waste.

While overall waste generation is still growing, Poto?nik noted that there is "a kind of decoupling between GDP growth and waste generation" going on.

Indeed, the progress report shows that over the last ten years municipal waste generation has stabilised at around 524kg per year per person, although household consumption has increased by around 16% during the same period.

However, while the direction is right, "we need to go even further to become a true recycling society, in particular regarding waste prevention," said Poto?nik.

The commissioner also underlined that recycling not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and dependency on imported raw materials, but also improves soil quality and creates jobs. "In the waste recycling sector alone half a million jobs could be created," he suggested.  

Waste management plans

According to the European Commission, only a small number of EU countries have so far passed the EU's revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD) into national law. The directive should have been transposed by 12 December 2010. The EU executive said in a statement that it is monitoring the situation closely and, if necessary, will take action against those that fail to implement the directive.

Poto?nik said his services were "starting to receive" the national waste management plans, which set out member states' ideas on how they plan to achieve the EU's various waste-related targets.

In 2008, the revised WFD introduced a 50% target for recycling of municipal waste comprising paper, metal, plastic and glass – and a 70% target for construction and demolition waste, both to be met by 2020.

The EU's Landfill Directive obliges member states to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste in landfill by 65% by 2016 compared to 1995 levels.

The Commission has also proposed to revise collection and recycling targets for electronic waste, including a target for reuse. The file is currently being debated by the EU institutions. The first reading of the dossier in the European Parliament is scheduled for 3 February.

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 (WFD), which should have been transposed into national law by 12 December 2010, introduces 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.

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