WASTE MANAGEMENT: An overview of EU Legislation
Throughout Europe we are using 16 tonnes of material per person per year, of which 6 tonnes become waste. It’s a fact that the management of waste continues to improve in the European Union but the economy currently still loses a significant amount of potential ‘secondary raw materials’ such as metal, wood, glass, paper and plastic. In 2010, total waste production in the EU amounted to 2.5 billion tons. From this total only a limited (albeit increasing) share (36%) was managed, with the rest sent to landfill or burned, of which some 600 million tons could have been managed or reused.
If we think just in terms of household waste alone, each person in Europe is currently producing, on average, half of tonne of such waste. Only 40 % of it is reused or managed and in some countries more than 80% still goes to landfill.
“An enormous amount of hazardous household waste is generated as part of municipal solid waste. This scenario presents problems during disposal, including endangering human health and the environment if improperly disposed.”
Because turning waste into a resource is fundamental to a circular economy. The objectives and targets set in EU regulations have been key drivers to improve waste management, stimulate innovation in management, limit the use of landfilling, and create incentives to change consumer behaviour. We must re-manufacture, reuse and manage, because if one industry’s waste becomes another’s raw material, we can move forward to a circular economy where waste is eliminated and resources are used in a much more efficient and sustainable way.
Besides, improved waste management is also really useful to reduce health and environmental problems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by cutting emissions from landfills and indirectly by management of materials which would otherwise be extracted and processed), and avoid negative impacts at local level.
We can say that waste is clearly an environmental issue. Every time a rotten lettuce is thrown in the bin, a broken toy discarded, or industrial scrap carted away, resources are being used up. This all contributes to the environmental pressures on our planet. And once a product is thrown away, and becomes waste, a whole new set of impacts are involved in treating it. But the environmental impacts are only part of the waste story. It is impossible to examine them in isolation without looking at economic and social factors.
Over time, several treaties have been signed in order to encourage the reduction of waste. One of the most relevant treaties in this sense is the Basel convention on the control of trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal usually known simply as the Basel Convention. It is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. It came into force on the 5th May 1992. According to this “Substances or objects which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law”.
The actions to prevent waste, for example, can create – or lessen – constraints on the consumer, can create or reduce costs for businesses, can create or remove jobs. These different impacts are not always easy to predict, and do not always pull in the same direction. Moreover, waste can genuinely be described as a local to global issue. A management scheme organised by a local authority can have an impact thousands of kilometres away, as the products of the scheme are traded on the international market.
We have to assume that waste is a complex matter – difficult to grasp, difficult to gather good statistics on, and difficult to regulate and manage. All of this means that waste is an issue that has an impact on a very wide range of stakeholders. It is a significant issue for many businesses that have an economic interest in reducing the amount of waste they produce, and are concerned by how waste is regulated. It affects a wide range of public authorities and organisations, from the smallest town council to international organisations. The management of waste accounts for a significant number of jobs in the economy. It is one of the most visible environmental issues for European citizens as they are directly involved in the efforts to reduce the impact of waste, and are directly affected by pollution from poor handling and disposal of waste.
Waste is associated with things that are no longer wanted, and because of the long history of mismanagement, waste does not have a good reputation. It is viewed in generally negative terms as a problem, a cost, a pollutant. Yet more recently the waste business and waste impacts have been changing. A gap is opening up between the perception of waste as a significant environmental problem – something to be strictly controlled and disposed of as cheaply as possible – and the increasing evidence that waste is a resource that can be exploited.
During the last thirty years we have seen a revolution in the way that waste is handled. Firstly, the environmental impacts of waste management and to a certain extent waste generation are increasingly under control.
At the same time, the most basic regulatory structure is in place, and its enforcement is improving a lot. Secondly, the economics of waste have changed towards recognition. Waste streams that businesses would have had to pay for to be taken away a decade ago, are now being sold for increasing amounts of money. Business innovation has transformed the technology available for the handling of waste. This means that although waste still has negative environmental and social impacts, it should no longer be seen as one of the most serious environmental issues when compared with climate change or biodiversity loss. The way we use resources in the context of sustainable production and consumption remains crucial, but it cannot be tackled through waste policy alone.
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