Europe’s waste problem in numbers

Newly released data shows little to no progress in reducing waste across the EU.

EU countries generated 487kg of waste per person in 2017, according to Eurostat. That’s only eight kilograms less than the 496kg generated in 1997, when figures were first compiled.

The analysis considers all the waste generated by households and offices.

Figures reached a peak of 524kg per person in 2007 and a low point of 479kg per person in 2013, when they began growing again.

With over 600kg per person, Germany, Denmark, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta generated the most waste across the EU.

The primary objective for EU countries is to reduce waste, according to the European Commission’s strategy to transition to a circular economy, where waste is prevented and materials are recycled.

Zero Waste Europe told META: “Over the past few years, waste generation rates in the EU have been stagnating if not slightly increasing. Recycling is not enough – to lead Europe into a genuine circular economy, we need binding waste prevention targets.”


The growing amounts of waste raise financial, health and environmental concerns.

When not collected for recycling, our rubbish ends up being burned or sent to landfill, which can be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

More waste also means more costs for collection and increasing logistical efforts – something that municipalities are not always able to ensure. This may result in rubbish piling up in the streets, especially in countries with poor recycling infrastructure.

But the biggest problem with waste is its indirect contribution to climate change, according to environmental experts. The amount of rubbish we generate reflects the production patterns in our economy. In short, the more products and materials we waste the more energy and resources we’ll need to produce new ones.

Cutting waste can have a massive impact on climate change, as less production means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Savings (negative values) of greenhouse gases or contribution to greenhouse gases (positive values) through waste prevention, recycling/composting or disposal of mixed waste (Source: EUNOMIA)

According to the research group Eunomia, the potential for CO2 emissions savings is much greater when waste is prevented rather than recycled. This is because of the additional energy and resources required to recycle materials.

Where does all this waste go?

Eurostat has also updated its latest figures for waste management. Overall in the EU, 30% of the waste was recycled, 17% composted, 28% incinerated and 24% landfilled in 2017.

Despite an increase in recycling and a steady decline in landfilling, the report shows that waste incineration has sharply increased over time – 74kg per person in 1999 as opposed to 133kg in 2017.

Incineration, which includes the practice of converting waste into energy, is one of the biggest challenges for waste management according to Piotr Barczak, a waste expert with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). He said:

Europe’s priority is to reduce waste. But this is difficult when our governments spend billions of euro to build or renovate incinerators which need large amounts of mixed waste to serve their purpose and justify the investment.” He added:

“Until we stop funding incinerators, we’ll continue to generate and burn waste at the expense of prevention and recycling.”


However, Barczak also warned that waste management data is difficult to compare because member states are still using different methodologies for their calculations.

Last year, a study by Eunomia revealed that the world’s leading recycling countries are overstating their level of recycling.