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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Speech: Waste is not a problem – it is an opportunity

Seminar on improving implementation of the waste legislation in selected Member States

Brussels, 19 March 2013

I am really pleased to open this important event, and I thank you for coming here to Brussels. This seminar is at the heart of two of the three key priorities of my mandate:

  1. Firstly; implementation. We need to make sure that EU legislation – including waste legislation – is properly implemented so that people and businesses actually get the benefits from it.

  2. And secondly resource efficiency. If we look at waste through the eyes of implementation perhaps we see it as a problem. But when waste becomes a resource it becomes an opportunity.

Resource efficiency is a flagship initiative of the EU's structural economic strategy, the Europe 2020 agenda. The reason is quite simple when you consider four things:

  1. Firstly that the world's population will hit 9 billion by 2050, and we will have 3 billion more middle class consumers by 2030.

  2. Secondly, that this puts a massive extra demand strain on primary resources. If we continue on our current trends global extraction of resources will increase by 75 % in the next 25 years. That is already resulting in rapid price increases since the beginning of this century after two centuries of real decline.

  3. Thirdly, the European Union imports six times more materials and resources than it exports.

  4. Fourthly, materials are the largest share of input costs of European manufacturing companies – at 43% in Germany for example; not a country with cheap labour.

I hope that from this it is obvious why the efficient use of our resources is essential to our future economic competitiveness.

And I hope that it is also clear that burying waste in landfills is not only environmentally bad, but economically illogical. Yet out of the 16 tons of materials that our economies use per person each year, 6 tons become waste. And half of that is landfilled. That is a European average, and I do not need to explain here that in some Member States the figure is more than half. Indeed, that is rather why we are here today.

In order to face this challenge, we have to use waste as a resource as much as possible. This is one of the main goals of the Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe and of the Commission proposal for the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) which set out some aspirational objectives ("milestones") to be achieved in principle by 2020:

  1. waste generated per inhabitant should be in decline;

  2. recycling and re-use should be at their maximum level; 

  3. incineration should be limited to non-recyclable materials;

  4. and, last but not least, landfilling should be phased out as a waste management option. 

These aspirational objectives will guide the review of waste management targets that we are now launching. But, we have already some key binding requirements in EU legislation. First, preventing waste is the best option, followed by re-use and recycling; with recovery and disposal right at the very bottom. Secondly, the 50 % recycling target for municipal waste to be achieved by all Member States by 2020.

Unfortunately, when we have a look at the recent statistics from EUROSTAT as well as the report on municipal waste management published today by the European Environment Agency, the picture which emerges is rather worrying. Landfilling is the worst option under the waste hierarchy. Yet, 37 % – more than a third – of all municipal waste in the EU goes to landfills. And seven Member States are burying more than 80 % of their waste; three of them bury more than 90 %.

The better news is that we are moving in the right direction. Just 10 years ago more than half of municipal waste – 50 % – was landfilled. The landfilling rate has therefore experienced a 19 % reduction. Our recycling and composting rates have increased – from 17 % to 25 % and from 10 % to 15 %, respectively. In fact, four Member States – Germany, Austria Holland and Belgium – are recycling or composting more than 50 % of their municipal waste, putting those resources back into productive use.


Dear participants,

I would like to get to a situation where all Member States are moving rapidly to phasing out landfill, doing more recycling and preventing waste from being generated in the first place.
I am absolutely convinced that this is possible. This is why the Commission launched an initiative to help accelerate progress in those Member States who have the furthest to go in making the targets.

The starting point of this process was the publication of a scoreboard ranking Member States' performance in municipal waste management. This may have triggered some debate, but it was essential to have a clear picture and see how big implementation gaps were.

In any case, no Member State should feel 'stigmatised'.

Firstly, the Commission is aware that all Member States are making significant efforts to improve management of municipal waste and that national conditions are not the same throughout the EU.

Secondly, nobody is perfect. For example, some Member States which are usually considered as good performers have achieved significant reductions in their landfilling rates by building a high number of incinerators – thus creating incineration over-capacity that may hamper the development of better waste management options. Part of this process is about avoiding the mistakes of the early adopters.

I realize that implementing the EU waste legislation remains a challenge in some Member States. Nevertheless, there are also opportunities to seize: better waste management means job creation and economic growth. Just implementing existing waste legislation properly could create 400,000 jobs in the EU.

Prevention, re-use, recycling/composting should be the first priorities. This means that separate collection should be intensified as far as possible to ensure high quality re-use and recycling/composting. This helps create value for the private sector to invest but will only happen if economic incentives are in place.

The Roadmaps that we have drafted with your input and ideas include several recommendations to create the economic conditions required to favour the first steps of the waste hierarchy, including prevention, build the required infrastructures and developing separate collection. With the right economic incentives in place, this can largely be achieved through private investment without adding to the burden of public budgets

The Roadmaps include several other recommendations such as transparency and proper governance, mobilising all relevant actors – citizens, industry, NGOs and public authorities. I would like to encourage you to use these Roadmaps as one of the tools to design your future waste management policies.


Dear participants,

The colleagues here from DG Environment that have been in charge of this compliance promotion initiative told me that the seminars in your countries were a real success. I would like to thank you for that and for the follow-up you will give to this initiative.

From our side, later this year, we will undertake an assessment of national waste management plans. Our objective is to check whether the measures to be implemented will allow Member States to comply with the waste hierarchy and existing targets. As I said earlier, these are legally binding requirements and the Commission has a legal obligation to monitor their implementation.

I would also like to thank all the speakers present here today and particularly the experts from other Member States who have agreed to share their experiences in solving similar difficulties. Exchanging best practice is one of the corner-stones in the construction of a comprehensive, resource-efficient waste management system which will bring not only environmental benefits, but also health and economic benefits for all our citizens to enjoy well into the future.

I am personally committed to improving Europe's waste management performance, particularly as we move towards 2014, which for me will be the year of waste. I would like you to know that you have my full support, and the help and advice of the Commission colleagues today, in addressing the waste challenges and reaping the resource opportunities. I wish you every success.

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