WHY MANY OF THE EU COUNTRIES STILL CANNOT RECYCLE MUCH OF THEIR GENERATED MUNICIPAL WASTE
At the beginning of 2021 news about waste floating on the Potpec accumulation lake in Serbia made the headlines around Europe’s news outlets. What would normally be a beautiful lake was then a dump, where one could see a thick layer of waste on the entire surface of the lake – from thousands of plastic bottles to tree trunks and metal scraps. That seems to usually happen in wintertime when the big waters sweep over landfills and bring up the waste towards the lake. And that appears to be the consequence of the lack of efficient (municipal) waste management systems and policies in Serbia.
Unfortunately, Serbia (not yet an EU member, but in talks to be) is not the only country in Europe facing these challenges. According to the European Commission report in 2019, half of the EU countries were at risk of missing the municipal waste recycling target of 50% by 2020, some of them with landfilling still at high rates. Reports on achieved targets are not yet public, but we can still look at the 2019 results to have an idea of the municipal waste management issues around the EU.
Municipal waste management in EU countries
The good news is that in 2019 five of the EU countries had already achieved the target – Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovenia – while the other nine were on track to reach it by 2020. The bad news is that 14 of the member states were at risk of missing the 2020 target. Why is this still happening and what needs to be done? The European Commission had some thoughts on that; here’s some of them:
- The local policies need improvement, including working on the economic instruments (e.g landfill taxes, Extended Producer Responsibility, Pay as You Throw schemes)
- Municipalities need to increase the effectiveness of separate waste collection which is a mandatory step if they want to improve recycling.
- Incineration and landfilling of recyclable waste are still done on a large scale. Estonia, for example, it said to had made progress in reducing landfilling of municipal waste, but it seems that most of this waste was shifted towards incineration, which in 2017 rose to 42% according to data. Thus, countries need to find solutions to decrease incineration and landfilling practices.
Diving into some of the country reports back in 2019, one can easily see that authorities and especially municipalities play an important role when it comes to waste management and recycling. In fact, many of the European Commission’s priority actions for each EU state to improve municipal waste management have municipalities at the center. Let’s see some examples:
In 2017, only 19% of the municipal waste was being recycled in Greece, while 80% was disposed in landfills, and the country was listed in 2019 among the countries at risk of not reaching the 2020 target (although in the past years Greece has made legal and practical progress in increasing waste recycling). In this light, the European Commission recommended Greece to:
- “Help local authorities to increase the skills of their staff | Making the EPR schemes more effective | The effective use of EU funds to support separate collection, recycling and composting.”
In 2017, Poland reported a 34% rate of municipal waste recycled, and the key priority measures to be taken, indicated by the European Commission, included:
- “helping municipalities meet their obligations, so as to make the separate collection more effective | improve financial incentives to encourage better selective collection of waste | introduce effective penalties for municipalities or local authorities, so as they put more effort into curbing illegal waste dumping | technical assistance for municipalities with meeting their implementation and enforcement obligations.”
While the rates for municipal recycling waste in Romania, according to data from 2017, were low (14% including 7% material recycling and 7% composting) and landfilling ones were high (reported by the country at 70%), the European Commission recommendations were as follows:
- “establish minimum service standards for separate collection in municipalities to ensure high capture rates of recyclable waste. | Use the economic instruments, e.g. pay-as-you-throw, and set mandatory recycling targets for municipalities, accompanied by penalties for noncompliance| Develop and run implementation programs for municipalities to help support efforts to organize separate collection and improve recycling performance.”
You can see that key actions targeting authorities and especially municipalities can improve these numbers all over the EU countries. And even if, at a country level, some of the results are not those yet expected, there are municipalities in those very countries that are making the difference. There are plenty of municipal waste management projects implemented in the right manner, with the right incentives, instruments, and technology, and with the right people. And we are part of some exciting regional or local projects both at a national and international level, which is proof of the successful deployment of waste management systems.
One of Ecostar’s latest projects is in Croatia, a country that in 2019 was also at high risk of not reaching the municipal waste recycling 2020 objective. Here, there is a small local community that gets flooded by thousands of tourists every year, which implemented in 2020 a local sorting line for the treatment of green and organic waste, designed entirely by Ecostar. It is the island of Krk, divided into multiple towns and villages, having around 20,000 inhabitants during the winter season and 140,000 during the summertime that made sorting even more difficult. Now Krk’s household green and organic waste are being treated and sent to the anaerobic digestion process. More details on the project are soon to come.
Like the Krk project, there are hundreds of others in many of the EU countries that are successful and are proof of the fact that waste management systems can be put in place and can work to the benefit of communities, countries, and EU environmental and economic goals.