European Union recycling regulations

EU_recycling_regulationsImportant EU recycling regulations

According to European Union data, in Europe, each person uses 16 tons of material per year, of which 6 tons becomes waste. EU is struggling with this issue and allocates an important amount of resources in order to improve the waste management program and regulations, but the economy still looses an important amount of potential raw material as: metal, wood, paper and plastic, materials that present waste streams.

Waste is an issue that affects all of us because we all produce waste at home, at work, on holidays, most of the times. On average, each of the 500 million people living in the EU country’s, throws away around ½ tonnes of household rubbish/trash every year. Altogether, the European Union produces up to 3 billion tons of waste every year.

All this waste has a huge impact on the environment, causing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, as well as significant losses of materials – a particular problem for the EU which is highly dependent on imported raw materials. The amount of waste we are creating is increasing and the nature of waste itself is changing, partly due to the dramatic rise in the use of hi-tech products. This means that waste now contains an increasingly complex mix of materials, including plastics, precious metals and hazardous materials that are difficult to deal with safely.

EU waste management policies aim to reduce the environmental and health impacts of waste and improve Europe’s resource efficiency. The long-term goal is to turn Europe into a recycling society, avoiding waste disposal improperly and using unavoidable waste as a resource wherever possible. The aim is to achieve much higher levels of recycling and to minimize the extraction of additional natural resources. Proper waste management is a key element in ensuring resource efficiency and the sustainable growth of European economies.

Within 2010 in EU the total waste production was over 2.5 billion tons, of which only 36% was recycled and 600 million tonnes could have been recycled or re-used. On average, each person in Europe currently produces ½ tonnes of such waste of each only 40% is reused or recycled, but in some countries still 80% of the waste goes directly to the landfills. More info you can check here.

The aim of EU is to turn waste into a resource that will help create and support a circular economy. Some major drives of EU were:
• to improve waste management;
• to stimulate innovation in recycling;
• to limit the use of landfilling;
• to create incentives to change consumer behavior.

As long as we learn how to re-manufacture, to reuse, to recycle, and how one industry’s waste becomes another’s raw material, we are on the way to a more circular economy where waste is eliminated and resources are used in an efficient and sustainable way.

Improving waste management legislation also helps to reduce health and environmental problems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (directly by cutting emissions from landfills and indirectly by recycling materials which would otherwise be extracted and processed), and also avoid negative impacts at local levels such as landscape deterioration due to landfilling, local water and air pollution, as well as littering.

EU waste policy has evolved over the last 30 years through a series of environmental action plans and a framework of legislation that aims to reduce negative environmental and health impacts and create an energy and resource-efficient economy.

The 2005 Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling resulted in the revision of the Waste Framework Directive, the cornerstone of EU waste policy. The revision brings a modernized approach to waste management, marking a shift away from thinking about waste as an unwanted burden to seeing it as a valued resource. The Directive focuses on waste prevention and puts in place new targets which will help the EU move towards its goal of becoming a recycling society. It includes targets for the EU Member States to recycle 50% of their municipal waste and 70% of construction waste by 2020. The Directive introduces a five-step waste hierarchy where prevention is the best option, followed by re-use, recycling and other forms of recovery, with disposal such as landfill as the last resort.

The European Union approach to waste management solutions sets the following priority order when creating waste policy and managing waste at the operational level:
•(preparing for) reuse
•disposal (which includes landfilling and incineration without energy recovery)

In line with this the 7th Environment Action Programme EU sets the following priority objectives for waste policy:
•To reduce the amount of waste generated;
•To maximize recycling and re-use;
•To limit incineration to non-recyclable materials;
•To phase out landfilling to non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste;
•To ensure full implementation of the waste policy targets in all Member States.

Waste legislation
The Waste Framework Directive, revised in 2008, streamlines waste legislation, incorporating rules on a number of issues such as the management of hazardous waste and waste oils. Other pieces of EU waste legislation:
The Regulation on waste shipments aims to ensure the safe shipment of all types of waste, including hazardous waste;
The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive sets standards for the design of packaging and lays down specific targets for the recycling and recovery of waste packaging;
The EU’s Landfill Directive and the Waste Incineration Directive set standards and limits for the release of pollution into the air or into groundwater;
The End-of-Life Vehicles Directive sets rising re-use, recycling and recovery targets and restricts the use of hazardous substances in both new vehicles and replacement vehicle parts;
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) legislation lays down collection, recycling and recovery targets for electrical goods;
The Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment restricts the use of hazardous substances in electronics;
The Batteries Directive sets collection, recycling and recovery targets, thereby ensuring their proper waste management;
• The Legislation also targets specific waste streams such as sewage sludge, batteries, polychlorinated biphenyls and polychlorinated terphenyls (PCBs/PCTs).

A life-cycle approach

All products and services have environmental impacts, from the extraction of raw materials for their production to their manufacture, distribution, use and disposal. These all include energy and resource use, soil, air and water pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases. Life-cycle thinking involves looking at all stages of a product’s life to find out where improvements can be made to reduce environmental impacts and use of resources. A key goal is to avoid actions that shift negative impacts from one stage to another.

Life-cycle analysis has shown, for example, that it is often better for the environment to replace an old washing machine, despite the waste generated, than to continue to use an older machine which is less energy efficient. This is because a washing machine’s greatest environmental impact is during its use phase. Buying an energy-efficient machine and using a low temperature detergent reduce environmental impacts that contribute to climate change, acidification and the creation of ozone. The new Waste Framework Directive has introduced the concept of life-cycle thinking into waste policies.

This approach gives a broader view of all environmental aspects and ensures any action has an overall benefit compared to other options. It also means actions to deal with waste should be compatible with other environmental initiatives.

Landfill facts

The Landfills are the oldest form of waste treatment and the least desirable option because of the many potential adverse impacts it can have. The most serious of these is the production and release into the air of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane can build up in the landfill mass and cause explosions.

The Landfill Directive obliges the EU Member States to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste they landfill to 35% of 1995 levels by 2016, which will significantly reduce the problem of methane production. In addition, methane gas must be collected in landfill sites and, if possible, used to produce energy.

EU legislation on landfilling is making a big difference. Thousands of sub-standard landfill sites have been closed across all Europe and the amount of municipal waste put into landfills in the EU has fallen by more than 25% since 1995. However, while a handful of Member States landfill only a small part of their waste, this still remains the most common form of municipal waste disposal in the majority of Member States.

The airtight conditions of landfill sites mean that materials, in particular, biodegradable waste, cannot decompose fully and, in the absence of oxygen, give off methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. The methane produced by an average municipal landfill site, if converted to energy, could provide electricity to approximately 20,000 households for a year.

An average municipal landfill site can produce up to 150 m³ of leachate a day, which equates to the amount of fresh water that an average household consumes in a year. It is estimated that the materials sent to landfill could have an annual commercial value of around €5.25 billion.

Energy recovery

The modern waste incineration plants can be used to produce electricity, steam, and heating for buildings. Waste can also be used as fuel in certain industrial processes. The poor or incomplete burning of waste materials can result in environmental and health damage through the release of hazardous chemicals, including dioxins and acid gasses.

To ensure hazardous substances are completely destroyed, incineration plants need to burn waste under controlled conditions and at sufficiently high temperatures. Where the emissions of hazardous substances cannot be prevented, additional measures must be taken to reduce the releases into the environment. For these reasons, the European Union has set environmental standards for incineration and co-incineration plants. This legislation helps ensure that the environmental costs of waste incineration are minimized while the benefits are maximized.

The legislation sets limit values for emissions from plants and requires these to be monitored. It also requires the recovery of any heat generated, as far as possible, and sets thresholds for the energy efficiency of municipal waste incinerators. Energy recovery through incineration is often not the most efficient way of managing used materials, particularly those that are difficult to burn or which release chemicals at high temperatures. The EU Member States are encouraged to use life-cycle thinking to weigh up the possible environmental benefits and drawbacks when deciding whether to incinerate waste. Primary energy production from municipal waste incineration has more than doubled since 1995.

Getting the best out of bio-waste

Bio-waste (garden, kitchen and food waste) accounts for about one-third of the waste we throw away at home – that is around 88 million tons across Europe each year. On average, 40% of bio-waste in the EU goes into landfills.
However, bio-waste holds considerable promise as a renewable source of energy and recycled compost. Energy recovered in the form of biogas or thermal energy can help in the fight against climate change. According to estimates, about one-third of the EU’s 2020 target for renewable energy in transport could be met by using biogas produced from bio-waste, while around 2% of the EU’s overall renewable energy target could be met if all bio-waste was turned into energy.

Compost made from bio-waste can also improve the quality of our soils, replacing non-renewable fertilizers. In 1995, more than 13 million tons of municipal waste was composted by the EU Member States. By 2008, this had reached an estimated 43.5 million tons, accounting for 17% of municipal waste.


Much of the waste we throw away can be recycled. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfill sites while cutting down on the amount of material needed of the natural environment. This is important because Europe is dependent on imports of scarce raw materials, and recycling provides EU industries with essential supplies recovered from waste such as paper, glass, plastic, and metals, as well as precious metals from used electronic appliances. EU waste policy aims to ensure that waste is used wherever possible as raw material to make new products.

Recycling also saves energy: recycling an aluminum can, for example, saves around 95% of the energy needed to make a new one from raw material. The EU has set recycling targets for many types of waste, including old vehicles, electronic equipment, batteries and packaging, municipal waste and waste from construction and demolition activities.

The EU Member States are working hard to put systems in place to ensure these targets are met. These systems include Extended Producer Responsibility, which makes producers responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products and packaging they produce, including the last stage of the product lifecycle, when it becomes waste. Individuals have a very important role to play. In many of EU Member States, householders are asked to separate their waste into different material types (paper, glass, plastics, metal, garden waste and so on).

This approach helps to ensure that the highest possible quality material is produced at the end of the recycling process. This maximizes the value of the materials and increases the number of products that can be made from them.

Producer’s responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility makes producers financially responsible once their products become waste, providing them with an incentive to develop products which avoid unnecessary waste and can be used in recycling and recovery operations.

An example of producer responsibility is the ‘Green Dot’ system currently operating in many EU Member States. Producers placing material on the market pay a levy for the collection and recycling of a related amount of waste material. This forces them to consider the whole life cycle of the goods they produce.

10 tips on how to be less wasteful

Think before you buy!
1. Is the product recycled or recyclable? This will reduce the environmental impact as a new product has not had to be made from raw material.
2. Avoid packaging waste: food packaged into separate compartments or presented as a mini-kit is not only more expensive but also produces more waste.
3. Buy the amount of fresh food you will use and enjoy your leftovers by turning them into exciting new dishes.
4. Use reusable and high-quality batteries which last longer and produce less waste. Spent batteries in the household rubbish contain harmful chemicals that can leak into the earth and water. Collect them separately! Your local authorities, supermarkets or electronic retailers can dispose of them safely.
5. Reusable products are better than disposable products such as paper napkins, plastic razors and plastic cups which use more resources and energy than their reusable counterparts and quickly end up in landfill.
Think before you throw!
6. Old clothing has all sorts of innovative uses. As well as raising money for charity, clothing can also be shredded and turned into packaging, insulation or raw material for textiles.
7. Paint and other waste can be taken to a specialized recycling center. If you do not have access to one then let the paint dry, add sawdust or cat litter, and place it in the dustbin.
8. Non-meat kitchen scraps can become fertile soil. Build a compost bin either in your garden or even a small one in your house. A good ‘recipe’ is to layer carbon materials (dry leaves, shredded paper, dead plants) with nitrogen materials (green weeds, grass, non-meat kitchen scraps) in a 3 to 1 ratio.
9. Recyclable glass can be taken to your local bottle bank, but do not leave it in your car until your next trip as the added weight will increase both fuel use and emissions.
10. If you cannot give away or sell your old furniture, recycle it. Check if your local authority collects furniture for recycling or perhaps there are charities in your area that will be happy to take it off your hands.
Moving towards a recycling society

In some EU Member States, recycling and recovery are the predominant waste management options, with use of landfills being reduced to negligible amounts, whereas other Member States still use landfills for the majority of their waste. It will be a crucial task in the future to move these Member States up the waste hierarchy to achieve the EU’s goal of becoming a recycling society.

This is also an economic opportunity. Solid-waste management and recycling industries currently have a turnover of around €137 billion which is just over 1.1% of the EU’s Gross Domestic Product. Together, these areas create over 2 million jobs. Overall, municipal waste recycling increased from 19% to 38% between 1998 and 2007. If EU Member States recycled 70% of their waste, it could create at least half a million new jobs across Europe.

Across the EU, the proportion of waste being recycled is rising, while the amount sent to landfill sites is
falling. The impact of waste treatment sites on surrounding areas has been minimized, more of the energy is recovered through incineration, and hazardous waste and illegal dumping are being monitored more tightly. A lot has been achieved, but much remains to be done.

The amount of waste we produce in the EU is still increasing. Yet the materials supplying this growth in consumption are in scarce supply. We need to ensure that our planet’s resources are managed in a responsible way which also considers the needs of future generations. We need to design eco-friendly products and encourage prudent and environmentally responsible consumer behavior to reduce the amount of waste we produce. And we need to improve recycling to increase the supply of raw materials to European industry.

Many Member States are making significant steps in this direction. However, it is clear a lot of work needs to be done to bring all EU countries up to the high standards currently being achieved by a small number.

We all have a role to play in ensuring that we get the best out of our waste. Householders can work to reduce unnecessary waste and separate waste to produce high-quality recyclable material. Member States must continue working to design appropriate schemes to meet ambitious targets, ensuring the correct incentives are put in place for businesses and households. And the European Union must ensure that Member States have the support they need to comply with EU legislation.

Useful EU links related to waste and recycling issues:
Council Directive 96/61/EC concerning integrated pollution prevention and control
Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment
Council Directive 85/337/EEC on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment, as amended
Council Directive 80/68/EEC of 17 December 1979 on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances
Council Directive 76/769/EEC of 27 July 1976 on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to restrictions on the marketing and use of certain dangerous substances and preparations
Environment and climate change within EU
EU waste legislation
EU focus on Waste Legislation