Half of EU countries ‘at risk’ of missing recycling targets

Many EU governments are struggling to meet their recycling and waste prevention obligations, the European Commission confirmed in a new assessment of environmental laws.

Half of the EU countries are at risk of missing the municipal waste recycling target of 50% by 2020, according to the European Commission.

Despite an increase in recycling rates across the EU from 43.7% in 2014 to 46.4% in 2017, only nine countries are on track to reach the target, while five – Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia – have already achieved it.

Source: European Commission 2019; Graphics: EEB

The announcement comes as the Commission published new country-by-country reports last week highlighting the level of implementation of environmental laws across the EU. Failure to implement EU laws that are meant to protect people and the environment may lead to infringement procedures against governments. So far, 173 cases have been brought to court.

Karmenu Vella, the EU’s top official for the environment, warned member states that more work is needed to improve waste management. The reports urged the introduction of measures such as better separate collection of waste, schemes to make producers pay for waste collection and recycling, and landfill and incineration taxes.

The EU estimates that a thorough implementation of waste laws, including those highlighted above, could lead to savings in the order of €72 billion a year by 2020, while creating over 400,000 jobs and increasing annual turnover in the recycling sector by €42 billion.

Better waste management could also alleviate the EU’s reliance on resource imports from foreign countries, boosting security of supply of some of the critical resources.

Piotr Barczak, a waste expert with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told META that the implementation of EU waste laws is fundamental to boost the quality and quantity of recycling. He said:

“The main problem with waste management today is that we’re still burning and burying recyclable waste. This is clearly the case for Estonia, which has expanded incineration at the expense of recycling.

The Commission has also said that 21 out of 28 countries need to boost the separate collection of waste – something that may also partially explain the poor recycling rates in the 14 laggard countries identified in the report.

“Things would be different if all municipalities improved the separate collection of all different waste streams like plastic, glass, paper and so on. This could be done by implementing door-to-door schemes, with trucks collecting different types of waste at designated times instead of unsorted rubbish every day, which is likely to end up in landfills and incinerators,Barczak said.

EU countries have been obliged to use separate collection since 2015, but door-to-door collection remains optional and limited to certain areas. In Milan, the door-to-door scheme helped increase recycling rates from 34.5% to 48.5% in only three years.

In the meantime, member states will also have to start preparing for the new recycling targets, which were agreed by EU institutions and national governments last year. EU countries will be required to recycle at least 55% of their municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035.

Other approved measures include a 10% cap on landfill by 2035, mandatory separate collection of biowaste and stricter schemes to make producers pay for the collection of key recyclables.

Despite the challenges seen so far in some countries, Barczak is optimistic about the new targets. “If all the right measures are put in place, it won’t be a problem to achieve those targets. Those five countries that have already achieved the 50% target can set a good example, including Slovenia which has made some impressive progress in a really short period of time.” He concluded:

Besides, it’s not like they have much choice. What are they going to do when the world runs out of finite resources?”

Do more with less

Alongside waste management, prevention remains “an important challenge” for EU member states according to the Commission. This is also the case for those countries with high recycling rates, including Germany and Denmark.



Six countries – Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Malta – produce at least twice as much waste per person than the country with the lowest waste generation. In Estonia, waste generation sharply increased from 280kg per person in 2012 to 390kg in 2017, while recycling dropped and incineration increased.