Many countries won't meet 2020 targets, says EEA

Eu flag

New figures released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) today (19 March) show that though some European countries have ‘rapidly increased recycling rates’ between the years 2001-2010, many will find it ‘extremely difficult’ to meet the EU’s target of recycling 50 per cent of household waste by 2020.

Commissioned in 2011 as part of a project by the European Commission and the EEA, the report ‘Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries’ aims to ‘improve knowledge on implementation of waste policies’ by reviewing the management of municipal solid waste across the 27 EU member states (EU27) and Croatia, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey between 2001 and 2010.

The figures, collated using ‘indicators, country factsheets and relevant European Commission studies’, found that in the first 10 years of the 21st century, municipal waste recycling in Europe increased from 23 per cent  to 35 per cent.

The UK saw the biggest increase in the amount of waste recycled, rising from 12 per cent in 2001 to 39 per cent in 2010, with Ireland coming a close second, seeing an increase from 11 per cent to 36 per cent over the same period.

Despite this dramatic increase, by 2010 recycling rates were highest in Austria (63 per cent), followed by Germany (62 per cent), Belgium (58 per cent), the Netherlands (51 per cent) and Switzerland (51 per cent).

Although these five countries have already achieved the 50 per cent target, the EEA warns that many others will need to make ‘extraordinary efforts’ to achieve this before the deadline.

According to the report, six countries (Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Sweden and United Kingdom) will achieve the target by 2020 if they can maintain the annual rate of increase in recycling that they recorded from 2001–2010. The remaining 21 EU countries will need to ‘accelerate the shift to recycling’ as their previous rates were ‘insufficient’ to meet the 50 per cent recycling rate.

The paper highlights that several countries that rely heavily on landfilling waste, for example Bulgaria and Romania, would need to increase recycling by more that four per cent each year to meet the 2020 target, a feat which ‘no country managed to do between 2001 and 2010’.

Further, the report finds that increases in biowaste recycling were ‘modest’ as only Italy increased its municipal-derived biowaste recycling by more than 10 percentage points between 2001 and 2010, and only six countries improved by between five and 10 percentage points. 

The reduced level of biowaste recycling is put down to: ‘the absence of an EU-wide obligation to recycle bio-waste’ (as EU rules only limit the amount of biodegradable waste that can be landfilled); the absence of ‘common EU quality standards or end-of-waste criteria for generated compost/digestate’; and the fact that dry recycling and biowaste recycling potential ‘depends on their respective share[s] in total municipal waste’. 

Further findings 

Other findings in the report include:

  • municipal waste generated by EU citizens fell by 3.6 per cent between 2001 and 2010 (the EEA suggests that this may be due to the economic downturn as waste generation per capita was ‘quite stable’ between 2001 and 2007);
  • Europe saw a ‘shift up the waste hierarchy’ as by 2010 the amount of municipal waste landfilled decreased by 40 million tonnes and the amount recycled grew by 29 million tonnes;
  • the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from municipal waste dropped by 56 per cent, or 38 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent in the EU27, Norway and Switzerland;
  • Norway, Ireland and Poland reduced the proportion of municipal waste going to landfill most between 2001 and 2010;
  • countries that successfully reduced waste sent to landfill and increased recycling usually used a ‘range of national and regional instruments’, including landfill bans on biodegradable waste or municipal waste that has not been pre-treated, mandatory separate collection of municipal waste fractions, landfill and incineration taxes, and waste collection fees.

‘Huge volumes’ of resources ‘wasted’

The report calls for more of a focus on biowaste recycling, and highlights the role of local policies in achieving change. It reads: ‘Many EEA member countries with a high share of biowaste in their municipal waste still recycle only a limited amount of biowaste, resulting in a relatively marginal effect of biowaste recycling on total municipal waste recycling rates. This is a clear indication that a stronger focus on bio-waste recycling is needed. For many countries, there is much room for improving the overall recycling rate of municipal waste through increasing bio-waste recycling.’

It continues: ‘The large regional differences in all countries indirectly indicate the influence of regional and local policies on the recycling levels of municipal waste. EU targets and national targets are the overall drivers of better municipal waste management but regional and local implementation is crucial for achieving positive results.’

Speaking of the release of the report, Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, said: “In a relatively short time, some countries have successfully encouraged a culture of recycling, with infrastructure, incentives and public awareness campaigns. But others are still lagging behind, wasting huge volumes of resources. The current intense demand for some materials should alert countries to the clear economic opportunities in recycling.”

The report follows on from a Eurostat report published on 4 March comparing municipal waste data between 2001 and 2011. It showed that in that time period, the 27 EU member states (EU27) sent 19 per cent less municipal waste to landfill, recycled or composted 27 per cent more and incinerated eight per cent more.

However, the EEA states that, as Eurostat uses ‘slightly different categories’ from the EEA, the reports are ‘not directly comparable’.

Read the ‘Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries’ report.