Recycling in Europe: We are not there yet.We have a strong focus on recycling in the EU. But sometimes it’s good to look at the bigger picture to see where we stand. And to be honest, we still have a long way to go. According to Eurostat, in 2016 a 56% of the waste generated in the EU was recycled compared to the 53% in 2010. That said, around 43% of our waste is still incinerated or landfilled, out of which landfill accounts for almost a quarter of all the disposal operations. In other words, every fourth bin bag thrown out ends up in a landfill. Even though more waste in the EU is recycled, the EEA still claims that the prospect of waste generation declining by 2020 is uncertain.
Scarcity of land. An interesting thought to keep in mind while discussing circular solutions and their importance is landfilling and physical space. The EU might be the frontrunner of recycling in the world however, as mentioned above, we still landfill almost 25% of our waste. This is a significant amount especially if we contrast it with the physical space on the continent. To put things into a perspective, the EU’s 28 countries span over 4,665,268km and is home to about 7% of the world’s population. For your reference, the US area spans 9,833,520km and their percentage of the world population is 4.3%. This also means that the EU has 110 inhabitants per km unlike the US which can note 34 citizens per km.
Waste versus population growth In addition to the scarcity of space in the EU, we also need to consider the increase of population and the amount of waste produced. One could suggest that the sum of our waste rises proportionally with the expansion of the EU’s population. However, the numbers indicate that this is not the case. In particular, between the year 2010 and 2016 the total amount of waste generated in the EU increased by 5.1% while the population of EU 28 grew roughly by 2% from 503 to 513 million inhabitants. As a result, the total amount of waste generated by all economic activities in the EU in 2016 was 2.538 million tonnes or an average of 5 tonnes of waste per inhabitant.
This broader perspective underlines the importance of a focus on a truly circular economy for the EU. Not only do ‘we’ need to achieve the goals set by the Paris agreement, the amount of waste we are producing is completely out of proportion. That is the reason why the Circular Economy Action Plan introduced by the European Commission needs to focus on all aspects of accelerating the circular economy. From drastically bringing down the amount of waste we generate to forcing a greater use of recycled materials in new products. The new adage for us as European citizens maybe should be ’reduce, reuse and recycle’ rather than ‘united in diversity’.