Material resources and waste — 2012 update


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

The European economy uses huge amounts of natural resources to function. Demand for materials is so intense that between 20 and 30 % of the resources we use are now imported. At the other end of the materials chain, the EU economy generates more than five tons of waste per person every year. With the boom in international trade, EU consumption and production damage ecosystems and human health far beyond Europe’s borders.

Economic growth, technological progress and the way Europeans produce and consume resources all impact the environment. For the EU-27 Member States, the average annual use of material resources is nearly 15 tonnes per person. The bulk of this ends up as materials accumulated in the economy; the rest is converted into emissions or waste. More than five tonnes of waste per capita are generated each year. Forecasts predict that Europe will increase its use of materials as countries recover from the economic recession that started in 2008.

Europe has become more efficient in managing material resources. Yet in the long term, our consumption of materials continues to increase in absolute terms. Furthermore, despite long-term improvements, growth in the productivity of materials in the EU has been significantly slower than growth in the productivity of labour.

The overall trend in waste generation, including hazardous waste, is upwards albeit most recent figures show a decline that is probably connected to the economic downturn in Europe. On the other hand, waste management has improved. For example, 38 % of municipal waste in 2010 was recycled or composted compared to 17 % in 1995 in the EU plus Norway and Switzerland. Some 60 % of packaging waste is now recycled, and 12 out of 19 countries recycle or recover more than half of their construction and demolition waste. Nevertheless, for total waste, as of 2008 in the EU-27, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway and Turkey together, disposal was still dominant (50 %) over recycling (45 %), whereas 5 % was sent to incineration.

The EU aims to become a 'recycling society' and a part of a greener economy which provides both better resource efficiency and improved security of supply. But Europe's economy is still heavily dependent on imported raw materials . 2011 imports amounted to about 1 600 million tonnes (about 3.2 tonnes per person), with fuels and lubricants accounting for most of this amount. The Europe 2020 Strategy adopted by the European Council in June 2010 aims at improving resource efficiency to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth.

Targets set in the recent past have not always been met: the EU was expecting to become 'the most resource.efficient economy in the world' and 'substantially reduce waste generation', according to the Sixth Environment Action Programme (6EAP) adopted in 2002. The adoption in 2010 of the Europe 2020 strategy, which identified resource efficiency as one of its flagship initiatives, provides new stimulus to develop an economy which is competitive, inclusive and provides a high standard of living with much lower environmental impacts. These goals can only be achieved when there is a considerable change in production and consumption patterns.

In addition, Europe needs to curb illegal shipments of waste, tackle illegal or sub-standard landfilling, and fully implement its waste legislation. Full implementation of the EU Landfill Directive can, for example, have secondary benefits for climate change through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of 62 million tonnes of CO2.equivalent in 2020 compared to 2008.

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