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Recycling targets now 'extremely difficult' for most countries

The UK increased its recycling rate faster than any other EU country for a decade, but must maintain that rate of increase in order to meet EU targets.

New data analysis from the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows Britain will achieve the legally binding target of 50% recycling of municipal waste by 2020 if the annual rate of increase recorded between 2001 and 2010 is repeated.

EEA said an annual average increase between 2010 and 2020 of just above one percentage point would be necessary for the UK to hit 50%.

It said that if growth rates observed in any of the periods 2001-2005, 2006-2010 or 2001-2010 continued until 2020 “the UK would easily fulfil the recycling target of 50%”. If growth rates continued at the significantly reduced rate of increase seen between 2008-2010, the target would be met in 2017.


But in the 12 months to June 2012 household recycling rates for England remained stuck at around 43% - the same figure as the 2011/12 financial year. The stall in the increase has stoked fears of flatlining recycle rates in England. However Wales hit 54% earlier this year.

While the EEA report - a review of municipal waste management in 32 countries over a ten year period up to 2010 - showed the UK’s recycling rates rose faster over the period than any other country, Britain was starting from a particularly low base of 12% in 2001 (see chart, top).

It also shows that the while the UK achieved an average annual increase in recycling of around 3.6 percentage points in 2001-2005, that increase dropped to around 2.1 percentage points from 2006-2010.

Overall, the report found a 35% municipal recycle rate across Europe in 2010, up from 23% in 2001. It warned that many countries would now find it “extremely difficult” to meet the 2020 targets.

“Although five countries have already achieved the target, most others will need to make extraordinary efforts to achieve this before the deadline. For example; at present, Bulgaria and Romania seem to recycle small proportions of municipal waste, so in order to meet the target by 2020 they must increase recycling by more than four percentage points per year during this decade – something which no country managed to do between 2001 and 2010.”

The best performing countries are Austria with 63%, Germany 62%, Belgium 58%, Netherlands 51% and Switzerland 51%.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director, said: “In a relatively short time, some countries have successfully encouraged a culture of recycling, with infrastructure, incentives and public awareness campaigns. But others are still lagging behind, wasting huge volumes of resources. The current intense demand for some materials should alert countries to the clear economic opportunities in recycling.”

Other conclusions from the report:

  • Europe is moving up the ‘waste management hierarchy’, albeit more slowly than required by legislation.
  • Changing municipal waste treatment between 2001 and 2010 has cut greenhouse gas emissions from municipal waste by 56%, or 38 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent in the EU, Norway and Switzerland.
  • Municipal waste generated by each EU citizen fell by 3.6% between 2001 and 2010. However, this may be due to the economic downturn – waste generation per capita was quite stable between 2001 and 2007.
  • Norway, Ireland and Poland reduced the proportion of municipal waste going to landfill most between 2001 and 2010.
  • Improved recycling rates are primarily due to trends in recycling of materials, with less progress in bio-waste recycling.
  • Countries that successfully reduced waste sent to landfill and increased recycling usually used a range of national and regional instruments. These included landfill bans on biodegradable waste or municipal waste that has not been pre-treated, mandatory separate collection of municipal waste fractions, economic instruments such as landfill and incineration taxes, and waste collection fees incentivising recycling.

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