Although municipal waste accounts for less than a tenth of the more than 2.5 billion tonnes of waste generated in the EU every year, it is very visible and complex in nature.
In October 2022, Parliament approved a revision of rules on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) 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 2018, the EU set new, ambitious targets on recycling, packaging waste and landfill. The goal of these new rules is to promote the shift towards a more sustainable model known as the circular economy. In March 2020, the European Commission unveiled an action plan for a circular economy that aims to cut waste by better managing resources.
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.
MEPs have also urged EU countries to increase high-quality recycling, move away from landfilling and minimise incineration.
Waste generation in Europe
From 2005 to 2018 the average amount of municipal waste as measured per capita declined in the EU. However, trends can vary by country. For example, while municipal waste per capita increased in Denmark, Germany, Greece, Malta and the Czech Republic, it decreased in Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Romania and the Netherlands.
In absolute terms municipal waste per person was the highest in Denmark, Malta, Cyprus and Germany, while it was the lowest in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.
Wealthier states tend to produce more waste capita. Tourism also contributed to the higher rates in Cyprus and Malta.
In order to look after the environment, waste either needs to be avoided or treated to reduce its impact.
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 on landfill, although it is also one of the cheapest possibilities.
According to statistics from 2017, 46% of all municipal waste in the EU is recycled or composted. However, waste management practices vary a lot between EU countries and quite a few countries are still landfilling large amounts of municipal waste.
Landfilling is almost non-existent in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Finland). Here incineration plays an important role alongside recycling. Germany and Austria are also the EU’s top recycling countries.
The practice of landfilling remains popular in the eastern and southern parts of Europe. Ten countries landfill half or more of their municipal waste. In Malta, Cyprus and Greece this is more than 80%. In Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia it is more than 60%, while it is also half or more in Spain and Portugal.
Other countries also use incineration and send a third or less of their waste to landfill: Lithuania, Latvia, Ireland, Italy, France, Estonia, Slovenia and Luxembourg. Apart from Latvia and Estonia, these countries also recycled more than 40% of household waste.
Between 2006 and 2017, landfilling decreased substantially in Slovenia (69 percentage points), Lithuania (65 percentage points), Latvia (64 percentage points), Estonia (60 percentage points) and Finland (57 percentage points).