Facts and figures

In 2013 each person in the EU generated, on average, 481 kg of municipal waste. Of this 43 per cent was recycled or composted.

Almost half of all waste treated in the EU-28 in 2012 was subject to landfilling or similar operations. About 36 per cent was recycled.

(Eurostat Waste statistics)

Many EU Member States will need to make an extraordinary effort in order to achieve the target of 50 per cent recycling of some municipal waste streams by 2020.

  • 20+ year outlook: Total waste generation is still high, although implementation of waste prevention programmes could alleviate this.
  • (EEA: The European environment—state and outlook 2015)


The EU has long had an extensive legal framework on management and transport of various kinds of waste. The first waste directive was adopted in 1975. Since then the rules on waste have been revised and supplemented several times and strategies for waste management have been developed.1 The main principles governing this field of law have been the principle that preventive action should be taken, that of self-sufficiency, and that EU environmental policy shall aim at a high level of protection.

According to the 7th Environment Action Programme, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, the priority objectives for waste policy include reducing the amount of waste generated; maximising recycling and re-use; limiting incineration to non-recyclable materials; and phasing out landfill to non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste.

1 Communication from the Commission—Taking sustainable use of resources forward—A Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste (21 December 2005) COM(2005) 666 final.

EU Environmental Law and Policy. David Langlet and Said Mahmoudi. © David Langlet and Said Mahmoudi 2016. Published 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Waste law has increasingly become a part of the wider policy framework for sustainable consumption and production and so-called circular economy. This has led to an increasing focus on reuse and recovery, but also on the design and composition of products so as to minimise waste generation and make the substances that do become waste easier to turn into new products. In 2014 the Commission presented a strategy called ‘Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe’ in which it proposed to, inter alia, boost reuse and recycling of municipal waste to a minimum of 70 per cent by 2030, ban the landfill of most recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025, further promote the development of markets for high-quality secondary raw materials, and set an aspirational target of reducing marine litter.2 The proposal contained six legislative proposals. However, the new Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker withdrew the proposal, promising a new version in late 2015.

In late 2015 the Commission adopted ‘The Circular Economy Package’, consisting of an action plan called ‘Closing the loop—An EU action plan for the Circular Economy’[1] [2] and six partly revised proposals for amending waste-related directives.

In addition to promoting a sustainable and low-carbon economy, the ‘circular economy’, in which the generation of waste is minimised and the value of products, materials, and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, is intended to boost the EU’s competitiveness by protecting businesses against scarcity of resources and volatile prices, helping to create new business opportunities and innovative, more efficient ways of producing and consuming, and creating local jobs at all skill levels.[3] The action plan includes activities in several areas, including those related to design and production, consumption, and reuse and recycling. With respect to waste, the Commission concludes that the current figure of around 40 per cent of the waste produced by EU households being recycled masks wide variation between Member States and regions, with rates as high as 80 per cent in some areas and lower than 5 per cent in others.5 In order to boost the market for secondary raw materials the Commission intends, inter alia, to launch work to develop quality standards for secondary raw materials, propose a revised EU regulation on fertilisers so as to facilitate recognition of organic and waste-based fertilisers, and develop a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for reused water, for example for irrigation and groundwater recharge.6 The Commission also undertakes to adopt a strategy on plastics in the circular economy, addressing issues such as recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances of concern in certain plastics, and marine litter.7

An annex to the action plan sets out the timeline for when the actions are to be completed. A monitoring framework for the circular economy, designed to measure progress effectively on the basis of reliable existing data, is also to be developed.8

5 Ibid, 8.

The proposed amendments to waste-related directives, further discussed presently in relation to the respective directives, are intended, inter alia, to increase recycling and reduce the landfill of municipal waste and extend producer responsibility schemes.[4] The proposals include common EU targets for recycling 65 per cent of municipal and 75 per cent of packaging waste by 2030 and a binding landfill target to reduce landfill to a maximum of 10 per cent of all waste by 2030.

The proposals have been criticised for partly watering down the objectives compared to the plan withdrawn in 2014.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

  • [1] Communication from the Commission—Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programmefor Europe (25 September 2014) COM(20l4) 398 final/2, 9—10.
  • [2] (2 December 2015) COM(2015) 614 final. 4 Ibid, 2.
  • [3] 6 Ibid, 13. 7 Ibid, 14. 8 Ibid, 21.
  • [4] Ibid, 9.
  • [5] ‘Timmermans defends ambition of new Circular Economy package’, Euractiv 02 December2015 at (visited 13 December 2015).
  • [6] [1975] OJ L 194/39. i2 [1991] OJ L 78/32. i3 [2006] OJ L 114/9.
  • [7] 14 [2008] OJ L 312/3. i5 Preambular para 8.
  • [8] i6 Council Directive 75/439/EEC on the disposal of waste oils [1975] OJ L194/23; Council
  • [9] Directive 91/689/EEC on hazardous waste [1991] OJ L377/20.
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