The European Union (EU) wants a circular economy in less than 30 years, so it has designed a plan to repair, reuse and recycle resources – waste included. The waste management plan is a comprehensive one and includes several actions: waste reduction and prevention, recycling and recovery, landfill reduction, extended producer responsibility, and innovation and research into new technologies.

The goals and general deadlines are for all EU countries: from the recycling of the municipal waste within specific deadlines (50% by 2025, 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035) to limiting the share of municipal waste sent to landfills at 10% by 2030.

EU countries had to adapt and take measures to manage their waste, and results are coming in, but are they enough to reach the various targets and the ultimate goal? Let’s review some of the data.

How is the European Union handling waste?

The latest European Environment Agency data reveals that the overall recycling rate in Europe was 46% in 2020. Despite growth in recycling in the past years, the EU recycles still below half of the generated waste, with one exception: packaging (64% of 2020). However, the overall recycling rate is slowly but steadily growing, and there are some countries like Germany, Austria, and Slovenia that have achieved recycling rates above 60%.

In the case of landfilling, waste-to-energy has been promoted to phase out landfilling as a waste disposal method, and EU countries were required to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 2035 as a measure to cut climate-warming methane emissions.

Another measure taken in the EU that seems to have a positive impact is the  Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. The EPR scheme makes producers responsible for the waste generated by their products on one hand, and on the other, it incentivizes the production of environment-friendly products, easier to recycle and reuse.  Many European countries have implemented EPR policies, such as the German Packaging Act and the French Extended Producer Responsibility Act. These policies have been successful in promoting recycling and reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Which are the best recycling countries in Europe?

Germany is well known for its commitment to sustainable waste management practices. In fact, Germany was the top recycler of municipal waste in the EU in 2020, reaching a recycling rate of 67%.

How do they manage to be the best in Europe and a leading recycler globally? Well, they’ve designed a pack of measures that work for municipalities, industry, and population as well: from mandatory waste sorting to EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) schemes to a very well-functioning deposit refund scheme that incentivizes people to recycle. How?

Under this last scheme enter bottles (both plastic and glass). Whenever they buy them, consumers pay a “deposit” ranging between €0.08 and €0.25 (the highest for the non-reusable plastic bottles) that is reimbursed once the empty bottle returns to the store. This way, the consumer is not only incentivized to return it to get the money back but also to buy more environmentally friendly products and limit the use of plastics. Isn’t that clever? Of course, it is not an easy measure to implement, as you need to build the infrastructure, but it works: Germany has reached a 98,4% return rate since implementing it.

Other European countries have implemented the DRS ((Deposit Return Scheme), like Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Lithuania, and others are to follow – like Romania which finds it to be a great measure but has been struggling to implement it.

Slovenia is also a top recycler in Europe.

According to the latest available data, Slovenia’s recycling rate was 67.1% in 2019, one of the highest in Europe, and they aim to achieve a 70% recycling rate by 2025. How are they succeeding? With a step-by-step strategy that has begun with the separate collection of paper, glass, and packaging in roadside container stands to door-to-door biodegradable waste collection, separate collection for plastic, metal waste, glass, and paper, an EPR policy, a well-designed waste management infrastructure and a DRS scheme for glass and plastic bottles. Moreover, they are recovering almost 70% of organic waste that is mostly composted and used for agricultural purposes.

Other countries in the EU are making progress, but are still to find better solutions to manage their waste

Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, and Romania are some of the countries that for many reasons – from a lack of commitment from Governments and municipalities, lack of infrastructure, or lower sensibilization of the population – are behind when it comes to the EU municipal waste management and recycling targets. In some, the waste management infrastructure has not reached its potential, in others, the waste is not all separated at source, and there are no policies to compel citizens to do it – so recycling becomes even more problematic – while in others there are no DRS schemes implemented for example. Though, when it comes to the latter (DRS schemes) in Romania, as far as 30 years ago, there was a system in place aimed at incentivizing people to generate less waste: either you were to pay more for glass packaging products as a warranty, or when buying the product, one had to give another empty bottle in exchange to pay less. 30 years later, Romania is working to implement the DRS scheme for glass, plastics, and metals, which should be running this year.

Getting back to the targets, when countries fail to comply with the EU laws on waste (specifically with the Waste Framework Directive and the Landfill Directive), the European Commission takes legal steps, as in the case of Romania or Slovakia for failing to respect the EU directive on landfills.

Will the European Union reach its recycling targets?

It seems that many of the EU countries will be able to reach the short-term goals by 2025. There are cases where countries have gone beyond the set targets. Italy is a great example and a top recycler when it comes to paper, organic waste, and aluminum. Others have to run more programs and take more measures to reach the objectives as with the growth in population and higher consumption recycling will become more difficult than ever and stress on present waste management systems.

Ecostar is present in Europe with its Dynamic Disc Screening technology and screening mobile and stationary solutions. The Ecostar machines are working either in recycling plants treating old and fresh MSW, or directly in landfills to recover the most valuable part of the waste to be recycled.

You can discover more about the Ecostar solutions for your material here.