As the penalty paid for economic development and urbanisation, the accumulation of waste destroys the environment and is at the same time proof of regrettable profligacy. Waste of all kinds, i.e. household waste, industrial waste, sewage sludge from waste water, agricultural waste and waste from the extractive industries, accounts for some 3 billion tons each year in the EU.
Included amongst "waste" are toxic substances and substances which are hazardous for man and the environment, as they can pollute the water table by percolation, contaminate micro-organisms and appear in the food chain through complex and little-known means. But "waste" also includes scrap metal, paper, plastics and waste oils, which can be recycled, which is important in a Europe becoming increasingly poor in raw materials.
In view of the close interdependence of waste management and many industrial and commercial activities, the lack of a European design for waste management is likely to affect not only environmental protection, but also the completion of the internal market by creating distortions of competition and unjustified movements of investment, or even the partitioning of the market. The objectives of a European strategy on waste management are: (a) prevention, by encouraging the use of products which create less waste; (b) increasing its value, through the optimisation of collection and sorting systems; (c) the laying down of stringent standards for final disposal, as contained in the Directives on new municipal waste-incineration plants and on existing municipal waste-incineration plants [Directive 2000/76, replaced by Directive 2010/75], see below]; and (d) rules governing the carriage of dangerous substances, so as to ensure safe and economic carriage and the restoration of contaminated areas, taking into account the civil liability of the polluter. The principle of producer responsibility is a key component in European legislation on waste management [COM/96/399 and Council Resolution].
The "framework Directive" for European waste policy obliges the Member States to take measures to ensure that waste is eliminated without endangering human health and without damaging the environment, and in particular without giving rise to risk to water, air or soil, fauna or flora, without causing discomfort through noise or smell and without affecting areas or landscapes [Directive 2008/98]. This directive introduces a new approach to waste management that emphasises prevention. It engages the Member States to implement waste prevention programmes and communicate them to the Commission, which must report regularly on progress achieved in this area. By promoting the use of waste as a secondary resource, the new legislation aims to reduce landfill and greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. It also regards energy-efficient waste incineration as a recovery operation, thus encouraging the efficient use of resources and the reduction of fossil fuel consumption Furthermore, the directive lays down a hierarchy of priorities in waste treatment, which provides for the following measures in order of priority: waste prevention; waste reuse; recycling; waste recovery (including energy recovery); and, as a last resort, disposal.
The European Union wants to prevent or reduce as far as possible the negative effects on the environment, in particular the pollution of air, soil, surface water and groundwater and the resulting risks to human health, from the incineration and co-incineration of waste. To that end, a Directive lays down stringent operating conditions and technical requirements and sets emission limit values for waste incineration and co-incineration plants [Directive 2000/76, replaced by Directive 2010/75].
A directive aims at preventing or reducing as far as possible the adverse effects of landfills on the environment, particularly pollution of surface water, groundwater, soil and air, and on the global environment, including the greenhouse effect, and the resulting risks to human health during the whole lifecycle of the landfill [Directive 1999/31]. An accompanying decision on the acceptance of waste at landfills lays down the procedures for characterising waste, for checking that it complies with the acceptance criteria and for on-site verification that it is identical to the waste described in the accompanying documents [Decision 2003/33]. Another Directive aims to prevent or reduce as far as possible adverse effects on the environment and risks to human health, brought about as a result of the management of waste from the extractive industries [Directive 2006/21].
Recycling plays an increasingly important role in EU waste management policy. That is especially true of waste paper, which represents between 40 and 50% of the volume and 15 and 20% of the tonnage of urban waste. The recycling of a ton of waste paper, which is less polluting than the manufacturing cycle for pulp, replaces the equivalent of 2 or 3 cubic meters of wood, viz. approximately 15 to 20 small trees. Moreover, it replaces imports in this sector, which is, after the oil sector, the resource most in deficit in the EU's trade balance. The Council accordingly recommended to the Member States that every effort be made to re-use waste paper and to use recycled paper [Recommendation 81/972]. A Directive on packaging and packaging waste aims at preventing the producing of packaging waste, reusing packaging and recycling packaging [Directive 94/62].
A Directive establishes: (1) rules regarding the placing on the market of batteries and accumulators prohibiting the marketing of those dangerous for health and the environment; and (2) specific rules for the collection, treatment, recycling and disposal of waste batteries and accumulators so as to maximise the reuse of their metal content [Directive 2006/66]. Another Directive imposes obligations concerning the controlled disposal of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polychlorinated terphenyls (PCTs) [Directive 96/59 and Regulation 850/2004].
Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is one of the target areas regulated by the EU. A Directive aims at the prevention of WEEE, and in addition, the reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery of such wastes so as to reduce the disposal of waste [Directive 2012/19]. It also seeks to improve the environmental performance of all operators involved in the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment, e.g. producers, distributors and consumers. Other directives restrict the use of certain hazardous substances in new electrical and electronic equipment [Directive 2011/65].
The European Community/Union is a party to the Basle Convention on the control of cross-border movements of dangerous wastes and their disposal [Convention and Decision 93/98]. A Regulation on the monitoring and control of waste transfers within, on entrance to and exit from the EU seeks to put an end to what has been termed "waste tourism" within the EU and the unrestricted export of waste to the developing countries [Regulation 1013/2006]. In cases of waste transfers between the Member States, a distinction is made between wastes for disposal and those for value addition. For the first category, the principles of proximity, priority to value addition and self-sufficiency apply. For the second, a notification system applies with a follow-up document and the compulsory existence of a contract between the notifying party and the consignee. Although there are exceptions under certain conditions, normally exports of waste to third countries and imports into the EU of waste from third countries are prohibited.