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Recycling in Europe

Innovation and investments for an ever more sustainable future

With a historic decision, the European Parliament has approved a complete ban on the sale of single-use plastic within the European Union by 2021. 

The ban mainly concerns those objects that are increasingly present in the oceans: cutlery, cotton buds, plates, straws and other types of single-use plastic (oxy-degradable products such as bags and packaging, and expanded polystyrene fast-food containers were later added).

The large quantity of plastic that is discharged into the oceans every year poses a serious problem for the protection of marine environments: according to World Economic Forum estimates, there are currently around 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans, with the addition of between five and thirteen million tonnes each year. In addition to causing serious environmental damage, plastic residues accumulate in marine species that form part of the human food chain, posing an additional risk to our health.

The European Parliament has also set important targets for the recycling of other non-banned plastics: the use of plastic food containers for fruit and vegetables, desserts or ice cream must be reduced by 25% by 2025, while 90% of drink bottles will be recycled by 2025.

European Union countries are some of the largest producers of waste in the world, but they are also among the developed countries that have the know-how to implement modern and effective recycling policies. However, the situation on a European level continues to be particularly variable. 

One of the priorities is to progressively reduce the amount of material waste generated, and therefore improve production methods by using less packaging, using environmentally-friendly materials or using packaging that can be reused. 

In Europe, the country that generates the highest amount of municipal waste a year is Denmark with 781 kg of waste per person, followed by Norway (748 kg) and Switzerland (706 kg). These figures are almost double those of Romania (272 kg), Serbia (306 kg) and Poland (315 kg), which are the countries that produce the least municipal waste. With 489 kg per person, Italy is in line with the European average of 486 kg per person. Food waste accounts for a large share of this, estimated by Eurostat to be around 20% of all food produced.

On a European level, the recycling rate in the European Union has increased over the years, although most of this increase is due to the increased rate of wood packaging recycling, whereas the recycling rate of plastic packaging has remained more or less unchanged. The 2008 target in the European Union for the recycling of packaging was 55%. This indicator is used to monitor progress towards the 55% target, with proposed targets of 65% and 70% by 2025 and 2030 respectively.

Construction and demolition are one of the major sources of waste in Europe. From a material recycling point of view, one of the key components is the pre-construction planning of material usage and the selective demolition of buildings, allowing for the separation of recoverable waste and hazardous materials.

Many materials are recyclable or reusable, but the current rates of reuse and recycling vary widely across the EU. Construction and demolition waste is covered by a mandatory target under the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC), article 11.2.

Apart from a few exceptions, the recycling rate of construction materials is very high, standing at 89% for the 28 member states. The situation by country is very positive:

The circular economy has great potential to contribute to job creation and economic growth, and patent statistics are one of the most useful indicators in assessing technological progress in a specific industrial sector.

Despite an increase in the number of patents over the course of the Eurostat surveys, the number has remained essentially flat in recent years.

Innovation and investments in green design, recycling processes and industrial symbiosis are key elements of the transition to a circular economy. Specific sectors that are closely related to the circular economy such as recycling, repair and reuse can in fact contribute significantly to local employment.