EU Recycling Targets: Progress and challenges on the path to a circular economy

Valpak International Account Manager, Ella McCartney investigates whether the EU will be able to meet challenging recycling targets and achieve a circular economy by the deadlines set out in the Packaging Waste Directive.

The EU-27’s overall waste recycling rates are increasing to meet the challenging targets set by the EU Commission. This increase indicates progress towards converting more waste into resources and establishing a circular economy. However, despite the targets implemented under the EU Commission the rate of recycling of packaging waste has declined over the last five years and waste is still being disposed of via incineration and landfill.

The regulations in the EU

The regulations on the management of packaging and packaging waste across the EU derive from the EU Packaging Waste Directive, Directive 94/62/EC also known as the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.

The directive aims to minimise the environmental impact of packaging waste and ensure the functioning of the EU’s internal markets by harmonising the implementation of effective recycling systems. The EU Commission set the following minimum EU-wide recycling targets for municipal waste:

  • 55% by 2025
  • 60% by 2030
  • 65% by 2035

Will recycling targets be met across the EU

The agreement only makes a minor breakthrough in ensuring that the EU27 countries will attain these goals and the likelihood that each member of the EU will achieve its recycling targets vary significantly when we examine each EU country separately. Recycling throughout Europe varies based on each countries recycling framework and waste management structure, collection systems, and countrywide legislation.

The EU average for recycling municipal waste was 49% in 2020 coming up just under the original target set by the Waste Framework Directive for that year (50% recycling of specific materials in household and similar wastes). This figure, however, does not accurately represent the recycling rates achieved in each individual EU country at the time, with Germany setting the bar high and recycling 70% of its municipal waste, exceeding the target of 65% by the year 2035.

Only eight countries, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Italy, achieved recycling rates of 50% or higher in 2020, while on the lower end of the scale, we see seven EU countries with a recycling rate of less than 20%.

What steps need to be taken to meet EU Recycling Targets?

All other EU member states, except for Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands, will need to improve their recycling rates at a more dramatic pace to meet the 2025 target of 55%.

Only by installing new waste management infrastructure, enhancing waste collection systems, and extensively redesigning consumer products for better recycling, would EU member states be able to progress toward reaching the strict targets set by the European Commission. Currently, for ten EU member states, more than half of their waste is still being sent to landfill sites.

While it is evident the high recycling targets have driven much improvement, there is further change needed to reach desired recycling rates. It is uncertain as to whether tougher targets will drive the move towards less waste going to landfill or whether new strategies will need to be in place.

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