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Europe faced with the challenge of a “zero-waste circular economy”


The efficient use of resources, and therefore better waste management, lies at the heart of the transition to a circular economy. The European Union and its statistics office Eurostat have recently published a number of studies and indicators making it possible to take stock of the situation in Europe.

For more than 20 years, the European Union has set and updated various objectives, such as reducing the volume of waste produced by households, increasing the level of recycling of waste by municipalities or even promoting greater use of recycled materials by industry. A study published at the start of March – “The European Environment — State and Outlook 2015” – makes it possible to measure the advances made and the progress still needed.

Per capita generation of municipal waste declined by 8.7% between 2002 and 2013, falling to 481 kg per capita. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between the countries (from 747 kg in Denmark to 272 kg in Romania), but waste production seems to have peaked in the early 2000s and levels are now trending down.

Looking beyond municipal waste, another indicator is based on EU-28 waste production per capita: this includes waste generated not only by households, but also industry, the service sector, etc. This also fell over the period from 2004 to 2012, dropping 7% from 1,943 kg/person to 1,817 kg/person (Eurostat, 2014). This reduction has been consolidated with a decoupling of waste production in relation to economic output in the manufacturing and service sectors: in other words, output is growing more quickly than the use of resources.
In particular, this situation reflects the increased use of recycled materials: for instance, recycled steel makes up 56% of European production of this material.

© Pierre Emmanuel Rastoin

Another key challenge concerns the treatment of waste produced: the proportion of municipal waste recycled or composted in the EU continued to progress over the period, “climbing from 18% in 1995 to 43% in 2013”, adds Eurostat.

Europe is seeing positive trends in terms of both waste production and management, but significant progress still needs to be made in order to better recycle and recover this waste, which, in absolute volume terms, is still one of the highest in the world. The economic choices made by businesses in terms of eco-design and new business models will also need to help drive a more in-depth transition to a truly circular economy.