Spain taken to EU court for waste management failures

The European Commission is taking Spain to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after repeated calls to establish appropriate waste management plans went unanswered.

In four autonomous regions – Aragon, Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Madrid – and the autonomous city of Ceuta, it is reported that there has been a failure to establish or, where applicable, revise waste management plans in accordance with the EU rules in the Waste Framework Directive.

Spain was due to establish necessary waste management plans to cover the country by 12 December 2010, and subsequently evaluate and revise the plans every six years, but has failed to do so. The European Commission has also made clear that once any plans or revisions were implemented, the Commission should have been informed.

Spain taken to EU court for waste management failures
The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg City
There had been repeated calls for Spain to fulfil its obligations: the Commission sent a formal letter of notice in November 2016, followed by a reasoned opinion in July 2017, a final warning that Spain should have either accepted or negotiated – doing neither risks referral to the ECJ, as has now occurred.

The European Commission describes waste management plans as being “one of the key instruments provided by the Waste Framework Directive for the achievement of its objectives. They describe the existing situation and define the objectives of waste management policy. They also formulate the appropriate strategies and identify the necessary implementation means to achieve those objectives.” The Commission has stated that adopting or revising the outstanding waste management plans should enable Spain to more quickly implement and enforce the EU’s rules on waste management.

This case is similar to those of Romania and Greece, both of which did not follow EU laws regarding waste disposal. As with Spain, both had received repeated notifications before being referred to court. Romania was taken to the ECJ last year after failing to close and rehabilitate 68 illegal landfills, while in 2016 Greece was fined €10 million (£8.8 million) by the court after it ruled that the country had not successfully applied a number of directives, including those on waste, hazardous waste and landfill waste.

In addition to the fine, Greece was made to pay an extra €30,000 (£26,500) for every day that it takes to implement a plan for the management of the hazardous waste and establish a network of disposal facilities to treat it safely.

The fines given to EU member states that do not comply with regulations are hefty primarily because waste management plans are such an important part of reducing the negative impacts of waste on human health and the environment. In Romania’s case, the landfills were reportedly no longer in operation, but the human and environmental threat was still felt to be severe.

Additionally, waste management plans are an integral part of the move towards becoming a more circular economy. The aim of a circular economy is to reduce waste to a bare minimum while reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials; proper regulation of the treatment of waste is therefore crucial.

With the EU’s Circular Economy Package now moving into the implementation stage, after approval by the EU Council in Brussels last month, EU member states will have to meet a number of strict waste management targets, including a municipal recycling rate of 55 per cent by 2025, 60 per cent by 2030 and 65 per cent by 2035. There is also a landfill reduction requirement – member states are expected to ensure that, by 2030, all waste suitable for recycling or other method of recovery will not be accepted in landfills, excluding only waste for which landfilling is the best possible environmental outcome.

The ongoing drive towards a circular economy in Europe has also seen the EU put forward a draft Single-Use Plastics Directive, which contains proposals to ban a number of single-use plastic items. Also proposed are further recycling and collection targets, with members required to collect 90 per cent of plastic bottles by 2020.