European Environment Agency (EEA)

Waste in The EU at the Turn of the Century



The major part of waste in the EU ends up at landfills. In the EU waste strategy, a hierarchy for waste management has been set up: minimisation, material recovery, energy recovery and, only as the last resort, landfilling. This hierarchy is not reflected in real life. In a discussion of how to reduce amounts of waste going to landfill it is important to look at the factors of policy, capacity, and prices of treatment. Incineration capacity varies much from one country to another, and so does the efficiency of energy recovery. Landfill capacity is especially interesting in view of residual capacity compared to needs. An analysis shows that, on an average, capacity will be exhausted in ten years from now. An analysis of the price structure on the waste management market shows that in almost all countries it is cheaper to landfill waste than to incinerate it. In this case, it is evident that market forces will direct waste to landfill rather than to incineration. This situation should be changed, if the waste strategy is to be complied with. The EU has adopted two directives setting mandatory levels for waste treatment. This is a step in the right direction. Other solutions may be the implementation of economic instruments such as landfill taxes or waste taxes. Results in some EU-member states show that it is possible to divert waste away from landfill by using economic instruments and drawing up ambitious waste management plans.


The major part of waste in the EU ends up at landfills. One of the ways of changing this situation would be to ensure that landfilling is not cheaper than other treatment options.

In June 1999, the European Environment Agency published the report 'Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century'. Thick as a phone book, the report is very comprehensive. The European Topic Centre on Waste wrote the waste chapter of the report.

This chapter is one of the first attempts to make a comprehensive presentation of the waste situation in the EU. The main paragraphs deal with:

  1. The most essential problems relating to the generation and treatment of waste.
  2. An analysis of developments within selected waste streams.
  3. Environmental impacts of landfilling and incineration of waste.
  4. Projections of future developments for selected waste streams.
  5. A review of initiatives taken so far in the EU and an assessment whether they are sufficiently far-reaching to solve the problems.
  6. The present article focuses on the part of the report analysing the importance of capacity, treatment prices, and waste policy in the effort to reduce amounts of waste going to landfill. 

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