As European society has grown wealthier it has created more and more rubbish. Each year in the European Union alone we throw away 3 billion tonnes of waste - some 90 million tonnes of it hazardous. This amounts to about 6 tonnes of solid waste for every man, woman and child, according to Eurostat statistics. It is clear that treating and disposing of all this material - without harming the environment - becomes a major headache.
Between 1990 and 1995, the amount of waste generated in Europe increased by 10%, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Most of what we throw away is either burnt in incinerators, or dumped into landfill sites (67%). But both these methods create environmental damage. Landfilling not only takes up more and more valuable land space, it also causes air, water and soil pollution, discharging carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere and chemicals and pesticides into the earth and groundwater. This, in turn, is harmful to human health, as well as to plants and animals.
By 2020, the OECD estimates, we could be generating 45% more waste than we did in 1995. Obviously we must reverse this trend if we are to avoid being submerged in rubbish. But the picture is not all gloomy. The EU's Sixth Environment Action Programme identifies waste prevention and management as one of four top priorities. Its primary objective is to decouple waste generation from economic activity, so that EU growth will no longer lead to more and more rubbish, and there are signs that this is beginning to happen. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, municipal waste generation fell during the 1990s.
The EU is aiming for a significant cut in the amount of rubbish generated, through new waste prevention initiatives, better use of resources, and encouraging a shift to more sustainable consumption patterns.
The European Union's approach to waste management is based on three principles:
Waste prevention: This is a key factor in any waste management strategy. If we can reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place and reduce its hazardousness by reducing the presence of dangerous substances in products, then disposing of it will automatically become simpler. Waste prevention is closely linked with improving manufacturing methods and influencing consumers to demand greener products and less packaging.
Recycling and reuse: If waste cannot be prevented, as many of the materials as possible should be recovered, preferably by recycling. The European Commission has defined several specific 'waste streams' for priority attention, the aim being to reduce their overall environmental impact. This includes packaging waste, end-of-life vehicles, batteries, electrical and electronic waste. EU directives now require Member States to introduce legislation on waste collection, reuse, recycling and disposal of these waste streams. Several EU countries are already managing to recycle over 50% of packaging waste.
Improving final disposal and monitoring: Where possible, waste that cannot be recycled or reused should be safely incinerated, with landfill only used as a last resort. Both these methods need close monitoring because of their potential for causing severe environmental damage. The EU has recently approved a directive setting strict guidelines for landfill management. It bans certain types of waste, such as used tyres, and sets targets for reducing quantities of biodegradable rubbish. Another recent directive lays down tough limits on emission levels from incinerators. The Union also wants to reduce emissions of dioxins and acid gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxides (SO2), and hydrogen chlorides (HCL), which can be harmful to human health.