The European Union is recognized as a global leader in waste management, with many of the highest recycling rates in the world reported by EU Member States such as Germany, Italy, and Austria.
How much waste is generated in the EU?The European Union generated more than 2.1 billion metric tons of waste in 2020, or roughly 4.8 metric tons of waste per capita. Households accounted for roughly 10 percent of total EU waste generation that year. The average amount of municipal waste produced per inhabitant in the EU has been increasing in recent years and reached 517 kilograms per capita in 2020. Municipal waste per person was the highest in Denmark in 2020, at almost 850 kilograms. This was followed by Luxembourg, Malta, and Germany. In comparison, Poland and Romania had the lowest per capita waste generation that year at less than 350 kilograms.
Waste management in EuropeIn 2020, 31 percent of total EU waste was disposed of at landfill sites, while almost nine percent was incinerated without energy recovery or disposed of otherwise. The remaining 60 percent of waste was treated in recovery operations, with recycling accounting for 39 percent. How waste is treated in the EU varies greatly among the Member States. For example, more than 80 percent of waste in Italy is recycled, whereas other Member States predominantly dispose of their waste at landfills.
The recycling rate of municipal waste has increased steadily in the EU over the decades and reached 48.1 percent in 2019. This figure dropped slightly in 2020 to 47.8 percent as a result of disruptions to waste services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, eight EU Members have a municipal waste recycling rate of more than 50 percent, with the highest recorded in Germany.
Recycling targets and a circular economyA series of ambitious recycling targets have been set for the coming decades to promote a more circular economy within the European Union. EU Member States are now legally bound to recycle (or prepare for reuse) 60 percent of municipal waste generated by 2030.
Under the European Commission's Waste Framework Directive, residual municipal waste needs to be reduced by 50 percent by 2030 to roughly 56.5 million metric tons. However, the EU is currently not on track to reach this target without reducing waste generation. This means that recycling alone is not enough to solve the waste problem, and that waste prevention is urgently required.