INSIGHT: Waste prevention targets, one route to achieve a zero-waste Europe

Author: Agata Wolk-Lewanowicz


LONDON (ICIS)--We are all aware of the vast amount of waste generated each year in Europe and the EU's ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan, but it is worth having a closer look at the challenges posed in setting EU-wide waste reduction targets.

Brussels-based NGO Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has called for waste prevention targets to be included in EU legislation to complement the current downstream approach to waste legislation, which focuses on avoiding landfilling through increased recycling.

The ZWE policy paper highlights that the EU's population has already consumed all the resources to stay within sustainable 'planetary boundaries' and now lives beyond nature’s limits.

Waste prevention is at the top of the waste hierarchy in the Waste Framework Directive, but EU waste legislation does not contain sufficiently stringent policies incentivising waste prevention.

ZWE proposes the following targets to be adopted into EU waste laws by 2022:

- Set a 20% waste prevention target by 2030 and a 30% target by 2035 for all EU member states
- Set waste prevention targets for individual product groups
- Adopt a residual waste target of 120 kg per capita by 2030 and 100 kg per capita by 2035


According to the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, 25.8m tonnes of plastic waste are generated in the EU every year.

Less than 30% of this waste is collected for recycling in Europe, and a large part of it will be exported to countries outside the 27-country bloc, where EU legislation does not apply.

This poses a question on whether an EU residual waste prevention target would be an effective measure without a waste export monitoring, reduction or a ban to ensure that EU efforts are not undermined by waste exports to countries with lower levels of waste treatment.

While landfilling rates of plastic waste have steadily decreased in the EU, the incineration rate has grown to 39%.

An increase in the use of recycled plastics would reduce the dependency on extraction of fossil fuels as well as help curb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with plastics production and subsequent incineration.

Nevertheless, waste collection and recycling in Europe have not developed at a pace needed to absorb the growing production of plastics and plastic waste.

Greater emphasis on waste prevention policies would help reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfill and in incineration.

The ZWE policy paper noted how waste prevention targets are not a popular measure among EU member states; the reason for this may be that it is not easy to set target for waste prevented prior to waste generated, with reliable figures being identified.

Also, waste generation is affected by factors such as economic developments and lifestyle changes.

Therefore, it is difficult to evaluate the effect of waste prevention measures on waste reduction targets.

However, successful examples of quantified reduction targets for specific product groups such as plastic bags and certain single use plastics might be an inspiration for future waste prevention activities.

According to the EU's Circular Economy Action Plan, sustainable product policy for individual product groups will be key to making progress on waste prevention.

Widely discussed options for reducing packaging waste include reducing, reusing, replacing, and recycling.

However, these options could potentially conflict with one another and, unless attempts to reduce plastic waste are well coordinated, they could be ineffective.

According to a paper published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in 2019, prevention policies for plastic packaging will have to be carefully considered for unintended side effects such as the negative environmental impact of materials used as an alternative to plastic or the trade-offs between plastic waste prevention and food waste prevention.

Policies to reduce plastic waste have focused on increasing recycling; however, not all plastics are captured for recycling and some are easier to recycle than others.

Reducing the variety of packaging plastics could simplify waste recovery processes and contribute to reduced residual waste.

To ensure that all packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2030, the European Commission will review Directive 94/62/EC 27, which dates back to 1994, to reinforce the essential requirements for packaging products.

The focus will be given to reducing (over) packaging, restrictions on the use of some packaging materials, and likely reduction in packaging materials complexity.

In addition to these regulatory measures, there are also market-based instruments such as taxes, extended producer responsibility, and deposit refund schemes that can contribute to waste prevention for plastic packaging waste.

The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model, where easy-to-recycle products pay lower fees, could ultimately ‘design-out’ problematic plastics.

Under the amended Waste Framework Directive, EU countries are now encouraged to modulate fees for EPR schemes.

The Action Plan on Circular Economy continues to encourage the application of economic instruments, such as landfill and incineration taxes or value added tax (VAT) that target final consumers.

A plastic packaging tax, as recently proposed by the UK, Spanish, and Italian governments could be yet another way of incentivising companies to reduce the consumption of natural resources and use recycled content  in packaging instead.

Nevertheless, the issue of measuring the effectiveness of waste prevention measures, policies, and programmes is becoming an increasingly important topic in the EU.

Member countries have set out various indicators by which the development of plastic waste prevention can be measured: the amount of plastic waste; the reuse of plastics/plastic packaging; the introduction of deposit fees; the quantity of measures implemented for plastic waste prevention; the use of plastic carrier bags.

Under the revised Waste Framework Directive, the EEA will aim to assess the impact of these waste prevention measures on the prevention of waste generation for each of the 27 member states.

This will require the development of a more analytical approach to waste prevention impact measurement.

However, for measurable and achievable waste prevention targets to be set, as proposed by ZWE, waste generation should be decoupled from economic growth, which is a challenging task.

Nevertheless, with EU progressive sustainable product policies and manufacturers' product innovation such as reducing over-packaging, increasing recycled content or re-use, Europe may be on the right track to a future with less waste.

Insight by Agata Wolk-Lewanowicz