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And the European waste champion is… Belgium!

by Joan Marc Simon

Belgium managed to be the best performing country in waste management in 2013.

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Thanks to reducing waste generation and good recycling rates the Belgians managed to send for disposal in landfills and incinerators only 197kg per person.

The big (negative) surprise was Estonia, the European waste champion of 2012 managed to keep low waste generation rates but because of building an expensive incinerator it has reversed the virtuous progression of last years and 55% of the waste, mostly recyclable, is being now turned into ashes.

On March 26, the Eurostat service released the statistics for waste treatment for the year 2013, highlighting that waste generation in the EU has seen a slight decrease from 488 to 481kg per person (1,4% down).

Comparison Denmark Romania 2013 in kg/person Eurostat statistics
Comparison waste performance Denmark vs Romania in kg/person   Source: Eurostat 2013

Same as in preceding years, the country that generates more waste is Denmark with 747kg per person (2kg per person per day!) and the one that generates less is Romania with 272kg, almost three times less. Of course the devil is in the details and an important factor for this big difference is the way statistics are processed in different countries but the graph shows the staggering disparity in the EU. In absolute terms Romania sends a lot less waste for disposal, 213kg per person, in comparison to 416kg in Denmark, but in percentage the former disposes of 78% whereas the latter burns and landfills 55%.

A worrying trend

Evolution of recycling in the EU Source: Eurostat 2013
Evolution of recycling in the EU in %
Source: Eurostat 2013

However the figures confirm a worrying trend; recycling continues to stagnate. Whereas composting and recycling in 2012 were at 41,19%, in 2013 they only slightly increased to 41,79% (0,6% up).

In the same period landfilling has gone down 2% but this waste has not moved to recycling… instead it has been transferred to incineration. If we look at the following graph we will see how the current policies in the EU are taking waste out of landfills to throw it into incineration instead of recycling it. This is what some people, including some EU officials, call zero waste to landfill; definitely a bad idea!

Evolution landfill, incineration & recycling 2009-2013 Source: Eurostat
Evolution landfill, incineration & recycling 2009-2013
Source: Eurostat

When a system doesn’t work, you change the system

We have been denouncing since decades that incineration competes with recycling in getting waste out of the bottom of the hierarchy and that the current legislation lacks the tools to move waste up the waste hierarchy.

Since long time words have been backed by facts; our case studies and the story of the hundreds of European municipalities in Europe prove that it is possible to move away from landfilling to prevention, reuse and recycling –reducing waste generation at the same time as recycling increases- in 5 to 10 years. This is the real zero waste direction!

The stagnation of recycling in the EU should surprise no one. The Union lacks tools to promote prevention and reuse, it is victim of a system that economically rewards generating energy from burning waste instead of supporting the savings associated to reuse and recycling; plus it still doesn’t require countries to separate organic waste (the biggest waste stream) to allow for proper treatment as well as quality recycling of the rest.

The waste hierarchy was considered to be the ladder which waste should climb to be phase out of the system. However the EU doesn’t give the right tools to member states to be able to climb this ladder and continuous to insist in getting out of the landfills not worrying where this waste ends up.

No time to waste: circular economy package needed urgently!

The figures dating back to even before the approval of the Waste Framework Directive show the strategy from DG Environment doesn’t work. New tools are necessary to stop wasting time; the waste package recently binned by the Juncker Commission contained useful measures to move forward. The Circular Economy package that the European Commission intends to present end of 2015 should at the very least preserve most of them.

Eurostat 2013 + residual waste

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There are 7 comments
  1. Wow, it’s impressive to see the difference in waste generation between Denmark on one side and.. Germany and Poland on the other. A few months ago I wrote a blog post about Sweden and how they incinerate 99% of their waste and even import from other countries. Curious thoughts.

  2. Tomohiro Sato

    To ZW Europe, thank you very much to keep posting information and news on progress of ZW movement not matter positive or negative. But it surprised me to know Western European countries still have strong indudsty of incinerator while Japan is crazilly strong in incinerator and nuclear power plant (even after Fukushima Tsunami Japan keeps sales of nuclear power plant and incinerator in overseas. I don’t understand why foreign countries trust and purchase disastor machines from the country which still can not solve own problem.) Any way, I hope ZW movements and others can speed up to more sustainable society. I am in work with Zero Waste Italy living in Capannori, Italy while I do some environmental movements and works in Asia (Hong Kong, China and Japan). Salute Tomo

  3. A few years ago I published a blog article about a major incinerator project in Scotland. It was eventually shelved.

  4. It’ very interesting that only 27,6% of the waste in the UK was recycled in 2013. Countries like Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and of course Belgium have learned how to benefit from the generated waste each year. We have heard that Sweden wants to buy some other countries’ rubbish…

  5. Dana Borrow

    In the latest research I saw that Estonia, Slovenia and Belgium combine a low level of municipal waste generation with an acceptable level of recycling and composting, which make them the countries that send less kg. per person to landfills and incinerators.

  6. Robert Osborn

    Very interesting! The fact that recycling is not catching on / declining is not a good thought though. Hopefully we will see a change around this soon.

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