Check out our infographic and read on to learn how Europeans manage their municipal waste, which is mainly generated by households.
Every year 2.2 billion tonnes of waste are generated in the EU. More than a quarter of it (27%) is municipal waste: everyday waste collected and treated by municipalities, which is mainly generated by households. Data shows that the amount of waste and the way it is managed varies a lot across EU countries, but there has been a shift to more recycling and less landfilling.
To reduce waste and its impact on the environment, the EU has adopted ambitious targets on recycling and landfill and is working on packaging waste. The goal is to promote the shift towards a more sustainable model known as the circular economy.
Read more about EU measures to become a circular economy by 2050
Waste generation in Europe by country
From 2018 to 2021 the average amount of municipal waste as measured per capita increased in the EU. However, trends can vary by country. For example, while municipal waste per capita increased in most EU countries, it decreased in Malta, Cyprus, Spain, and Romania.
In absolute terms municipal waste per person was highest in Austria, Luxemburg, Denmark and Belgium, while it was the lowest in Spain, Latvia, Croatia and Sweden. Wealthier countries tend to produce more waste per capita.
Waste management practices across the EU
Waste management practices vary between EU countries. The EU wants to promote the prevention of waste and the re-use of products as much as possible. If this is not possible, it prefers recycling (including composting), followed by using waste to generate energy. The most harmful option for the environment and people's health is simply disposing of waste, for example in a landfill, although it is also one of the cheapest possibilities. Even though the waste generated per capita has increased, the way we manage waste has improved - with more recycling and composting and a decrease in landfill.
Recycling, composting and incineration trends
According to statistics from 2021, 49.6% of all municipal waste in the EU is recycled or composted - an increase of 3.6 percentage points from 2017. The EU has set a target of 60% for reuse and recycling of municipal waste by 2030.
Germany, Bulgaria, Austria and Slovenia have already reached or exceeded this 60% target.
Landfilling is almost non-existent in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Luxemburg, Slovenia and Finland. Here incineration plays an important role alongside recycling. Lithuania, Latvia, Ireland, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland also use incineration and send a third or less of their waste to landfill.
Evolution of landfill in EU countries
The share of landfill in the EU decreased from 24% in 2017 to 18% in 2020. In line with the EU Landfill Directive, EU countries must reduce the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less of the total municipal waste generated by 2035.
The practice of landfilling remains popular in the eastern and southern parts of Europe. In Bulgaria and Malta, it is more than 70%. In Greece, Cyprus and Romania it is more than 50%, while it is now less than 50% in Spain and Portugal compared to 2017.
Between 2017 and 2020, landfilling decreased substantially in Croatia (31 percentage points), Poland (31 percentage points), Slovakia (30 percentage points), Cyprus, (30 percentage points), Greece (20 percentage points), Malta (20 percentage points) and Romania (20 percentage points).
Export of waste outside the EU
The EU also exports part of its waste. In 2021, EU exports of waste to non-EU countries reached 33 million tonnes. This is an increase of 77% compared to 2004.
The majority of waste exported outside the EU consists of ferrous and non-ferrous metal scrap as well as paper, plastic, textile and glass wastes. EU exports of ferrous metal scrap and glass waste go mostly to OECD member countries, while those of non-ferrous scrap, paper waste, plastic waste and textile waste mostly go to non-OECD member countries.
In 2021, 45% of EU waste went to Turkey (14.7 million tonnes), followed by India (2,4 million tonnes), Egypt (1,9 million tonnes), Switzerland (1,7 million tonnes) and the UK (1,5 million tonnes).
The EU wants to counter illegal exports and ensure waste is managed in an environmentally sound manner in the destination countries.
Parliament’s work to achieve a circular economy
In October 2022, Parliament approved a revision of the rules on persistent organic pollutants to reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals in waste and production processes. The new rules will introduce stricter limits, ban certain chemicals and keep pollutants away from recycling.
In February 2021, the Parliament adopted a resolution on the new circular economy action plan demanding additional measures to achieve a carbon-neutral, environmentally sustainable, toxic-free and fully circular economy by 2050, including tighter recycling rules and binding targets for materials use and consumption by 2030.
In November 2022, the European Commission proposed new EU-wide rules on packaging. It includes proposals to improve packaging design, such as clear labelling, to promote reuse and recycling and calls for a transition to bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics.
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