Waste recycling targets in the EU: which way forward?

Thursday 28 September 2017

The European Commission and the European Parliament proposed ambitious EU-wide recycling targets as part of the Circular Economy Package. However, a number of EU Member States are reluctant to accept those proposed targets - largely due to the varying waste treatment practices and habits. With the recycling targets on the table of interinstitutional negotiations, an agreement seems not yet within reach.

One of the most pressing issues of the upcoming waste legislation[i], is to find an agreement on EU-wide recycling targets, aimed at recycling more and better. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament proposed rather ambitious targets but they still need to find an agreement with the Council in the so-called interinstitutional negotiations (trilogues).

In particular, the European Parliament proposed an overall recycling rate of municipal waste of 60% by 2025 and of 70% by 2030.[ii] For packaging waste, the rate would be even higher: 70% by 2025 and 80% by 2030. The packaging recycling rates are material specific, with separate targets for plastic, wood, ferrous metal, aluminium, glass and paper and cardboard.[iii]

Member States are divided

Even tough waste legislation is extensively framed by the EU, municipal waste management systems strongly differ among Member States. All the Member States are trying to perform better by implementing the waste management hierarchy - from disposal, to recovery and to recycling – but differences remain.

Western European countries such as Italy, France, Germany and the Benelux have a strong recycling record and are in favour of ambitious targets. So is Austria, Europe’s front-runner in terms of municipal waste recycling, which has a recycling rate of 63%.

According to a survey by the European Environmental Bureau, countries opposing higher recycling targets include Denmark, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.[iv]

Reluctance for setting higher targets stems from the potential costs they would bring. Enhanced efforts will be needed in a number of Member States, not only regarding infrastructure but also to set up enhanced collection systems.

The different waste treatment methods and recycling habits among EU Member States, lead to a greatly divided Council. On 26 September, the third trilogue meeting on the Circular Economy Package took place, but the recycling targets were not yet on the agenda. The next Environmental Council meeting is scheduled on the 13th of October and the next trilogue will take place on 25th of October. For now, it remains an open question where the final recycling targets will land.

Meanwhile in the UK …

A policy that has been defined by the European Union for many years would go back to be a national competence for the United Kingdom after Brexit. Would the UK stick to the European targets or would it design a complete new policy?

Policy Exchange, a British think tank, claimed that the EU Circular Economy Package is ill-defined for the UK. The authors of the study conclude that Brexit could be an opportunity for the UK to make a policy suited for its needs.[v]

Today, the UK does not meet the existing EU-wide target of 50% household waste recycling. In 2015, its overall recycling rate for household waste was 44,3%, which marks compared to its 2014 rate.[vi] In addition, the UK annually exports more than 3 million tons of waste, to be incinerated abroad.

Whatever the specific outcome of Brexit would be, UK’s policy-makers would have to rethink their waste policy. And it seems likely they would not carry out recycling targets as high as the ones currently on the table in the EU’s interinstitutional negotiations.



[i] http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/05/19-waste-package/

[ii] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&language=EN&reference=P8-TA-2017-0070

[iii] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&language=EN&reference=P8-TA-2017-0072

[iv] http://eeb.org/uncertainty-among-eu-countries-on-waste-proposals-threatens-transition-to-a-circular-economy/

[v] https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/going-round-in-circles/

[vi]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/593040/UK_statsonwaste_statsnotice_Dec2016_FINALv2_2.pdf

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