Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / September 26, 2017

Turning waste into a resource

Around 476 kilograms per person of municipal waste (1 300 grams per person per day) were generated in the EU in 2015, with a significant portion — around one-third of all municipal waste in 2012 — still being disposed of in landfills.

© Alazur /

Written by Lieve Van Woensel,

waste recycling
© Alazur /

Around 476 kilograms per person of municipal waste (1 300 grams per person per day) were generated in the EU in 2015, with a significant portion — around one-third of all municipal waste in 2012 — still being disposed of in landfills. Although significant progress is being made across Member States and in municipalities, great challenges still exist for reducing waste and for generating high-quality waste streams for reuse and recovery. These challenges go along with a great employment potential.

To turn waste into a resource, waste management objectives must be aligned with the goals of a circular economy transition. A newly published STOA study focuses on the current policy landscape and technologies for the five waste streams identified in the European Commission’s circular economy action plan (see below). Employment opportunities at the different steps of the waste hierarchy (from prevention to disposal), as well as future policy options are identified and discussed.

To manage waste as a resource, instead of as a problem, the waste industry will have to become a key partner of businesses operating in the circular economy. This means a transition from the ‘collect and dispose’ method of waste management to reducing waste and generating high-quality waste streams for reuse and recovery. This maximises both the value and the volume of resources within the economy.

This new study assesses the role of the five waste streams – municipal waste, packaging waste, food waste, bio-waste, and critical raw materials – in the transition toward a circular economy in the municipalities and Member States of the EU. Some of the key findings include:

  • Around two-thirds of Member States have reduced their levels of per person municipal waste generation over the last decade. However, waste production is generally higher in countries with relatively high GDP. There is large potential for scaling-up waste prevention. For instance, food waste comprises around 11 % of municipal waste and as such is a key area for policy action to promote prevention by various means.
  • Half of the Member States currently landfill more than 50 % of their municipal waste, while six Member States (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) have even met the 2030 target of no more than 10 % of municipal waste landfilled. It is not surprising that there is a strong correlation between a reduction in landfilling and landfill taxes and bans.
  • Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and France each incinerate over 35 % of municipal waste generated, meaning that to meet recycling targets (of 65 % recycled) they must now divert waste from incinerators to recycling. Developing an EU-wide infrastructure for waste management toward recovery and recycling to achieve the necessary economies of scale could support such efforts and help to prevent lock-ins associated with regional over-capacities in waste-to-energy facilities.
  • Waste from electrical and electronic equipment is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU (growing at 3-5 % annually). It contains precious metals and critical raw materials, making it key for expanding circular economy principles focused on value recovery.
  • Recycling has so far concentrated on specific materials, including metals, in what is known as a material-centric approach. As products have become increasingly complex, future efforts may use a product-centric approach focused on the specific components of a product and ways to separate and recover them.
  • An economy which prioritises repair, re-use, remanufacturing and recycling of materials is more labour-intensive than one based on a disposal philosophy, leading to increased job opportunities. Co-benefits, especially of repair activities, are job and training opportunities for disadvantaged workers.
  • Reliable, consistent and harmonised data is needed to better monitor and compare the state of waste management and progress toward a circular economy across and within EU Member States. Policy-makers may provide stronger clarity on definitions, as well as support further research toward development of a monitoring system, including future modelling assessments taking wider social, environmental and economic indicators into account.

The STOA study ‘Towards a circular economy – Waste management‘ (PE 581.913) was published in September 2017. It was carried out by Oakdene Hollins (UK) and revised by the Circular Economy Research Unit of Wuppertal Institute (DE) at the request of the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Option Assessment (STOA) Panel. The study was managed by the Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA), within the Directorate-General for Parliamentary Research Services (DG EPRS) of the European Parliament. Authors: P. Lee, E. Sims, O. Bertham, H. Symington, N. Bell, L. Pfaltzgraff and P. Sjögren.

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