The EU Waste Package: a compromise

The EU Circular Economy Package pushes forward the concepts of ‘recycle, repair and reuse’ as well as waste avoidance (see Neligan, 2018). Yet, finding common positions on how to revise waste legislation was difficult. In mid-April the EU Parliament will vote on the new waste rules before final adoption by the Council (EU Parliament, 2018). The EU Commission proposed a recycling target of 65 per cent of municipal waste by 2030 – the EU Parliament called for 70 per cent and the EU Council for 60 per cent. As a compromise, recycling targets for municipal waste are now set at 55 per cent by 2025, 60 per cent by 2030 and 65 per cent by 2035. The agreement only goes part of the way towards harmonising the measurement of real recycling. With four methods currently available, agreeing on a single method, which records the input into the final recycling process, is an important decision. Since many countries use the weight of material from collection (or the first sort) as measurement point, this will imply adjustments of their recycling rates. However, an exemption allows member states, if data is unavailable, to declare materials as recycled even after an early waste sorting stage by applying average loss rates (EU Commission, 2018). Hence, comparability of recycling rates between EU member states will continue to be an issue.

No clear shift to waste avoidance

Since 2005, 17 EU countries have been able to reduce municipal waste per head, while it has increased in Germany. On average, Germany generated 626 kg of municipal waste per person in 2016. Within the European Union (482 kg per head) only Denmark (777 kg), Cyprus (688 kg) and Malta (623 kg) threw away more (Eurostat, 2018). Between 2005 and 2016, the total amount of EU municipal waste decreased by 4 per cent – in Germany it rose by 11 per cent. Yet, both the EU and Germany have been able to reduce the waste intensity – the total volume of municipal waste per Euro gross domestic product over the past decade. Nonetheless, countries with high GDP per capita, e.g. Germany but also Denmark and Ireland, still tend to produce more municipal waste per head than countries with low level per-capita GDP.

Slow switch from landfilling to recycling

The envisaged recycling targets are ambitious, but are a key impulse to move all EU member states towards more recycling. Since only a few member states are on track to meet the goals yet, strict targets are a way to enforce the needed change in the waste management infrastructure in many countries. Landfilling dropped clearly in the EU-27 states, from 43 (2005) to 24 per cent (2016). However, ten member states still send more than half of their municipal waste to landfills. Only seven member states already fulfil the planned 10 per cent landfilling target until 2035 as they dump at most one tenth of their municipal waste on rubbish tips. In parallel, incineration – mostly for energy recovery – rose from 19 to 28 per cent.

Recycling has become more important in Europe: EU recycling rates increased from 32 to 46 per cent between 2005 and 2016. Yet, more progress is needed to reach the targets.