Figure It Out

Chris-MurphyChris Murphy, deputy chief executive and a Fellow of CIWM, looks at Eurostat’s recently published trends in municipal waste generation and treatment in the EU, and asks if they really add up…


A report from Europe with so called comparative statistics compiled by 28 disparate communities is, for me, like slipping on a comfortable pair of old shoes and stepping onto my, by now, well-worn soapbox. The report was compiled by Eurostat on trends in municipal waste generation and treatment in the European Union from 1995 to 2014.

Eurostat has been collecting and publishing data on municipal waste for over 20 years. “These data are widely used for comparing municipal waste generation and treatment in different countries, and indicators on municipal waste are used to monitor European waste policies”, it says. It is this comparative use that I have an issue with.

A short time ago I visited the European Environment Agency to discuss its role, not just in compiling Eurostatistics in the sector, but in verifying them. What surprised me at the time, and continues to do so, is that it (and Eurostat) has virtually no role in verification and no standard procedure for member states to follow when compiling and submitting data.

There are acknowledgements in the report that reporting could be better. For example, because there is no clear classification criteria to distinguish between incineration with and without energy recovery, it states: “the comparability of results among countries and over time remains fairly limited”. Similarly, MBT is not categorised as a separate treatment method and waste delivered to these facilities should be recorded on the basis of the final treatment, however, this varies significantly with some countries reporting on pre-treatment only.

The Best Performing Country?

Looking purely at recycling, I asked some experienced CIWM members to name the best performing country in Europe. They came up with the usual suspects: Germany, the Netherlands or any one of three Scandinavian countries… but no, beating Germany by a couple of points and knocking the rest of Europe into a cocked hat is Slovenia. I’ve never been there and only know where it is because of pub quizzes, but if we are to believe this report, all 3m of its population must be highly environmentally motivated.

I’m not going to play the same game with incineration statistics, because by now you will have caught my drift, but the country with the highest proportion of waste going to incineration… is Estonia. To some extent that is less of a surprise, because it has one large plant and a population of just over 1m, so the 56 percent incinerated doesn’t look so skewed. However, from the statistics it could be argued that Estonia is the best performing country in the EU! Waste generation at 357kg per person is one of the lowest, recycling is a respectable 31 percent and only eight percent goes to landfill. Forget Flanders, get yourself to Tallinn to find out how to prevent, recycle and divert waste from landfill.

The Eurostat report does focus on municipal waste generated across the EU. The good news is that the amount generated per person in 2014 at 475kg is down 10 percent compared with its peak of 527kg in 2002. With waste prevention a clear priority at the top of the waste hierarchy, it was disappointing that waste generation increased between 1995 to 2002, and only since 2008 has it started to reduce – let’s hope this is a trend that is set to continue.

Going forward, the other good news is that the Circular Economy Package released at the end of last year identified that data was an issue, as were definitions. The Commission appears to be committed to all member states using similar definitions and metrics, particularly if they are to be used for comparative purposes. They are determined that outputs from recycling facilities, rather than inputs, will be measured, even if in the short-term this reduces recycling rates. They might also want to include some sort of standard for compost and anaerobic digestate such as only that with a beneficial use is counted.

The future is positive if we continue with this general trend of reducing waste generation and landfill, while at the same time increasing recycling across Europe. And if we reach a point when we can truly compare Cox’s Orange Pippins with Golden Delicious, I will retire the soapbox.

This article was originally published in the CIWM Journal. Not a member or subscriber? More information here…

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