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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. 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. In February 2011, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) passed new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) guidelines for electronic waste. The main objective of the WEEE Directive is to reduce the amount of WEEE that ends up in landfills, and to restrict the use of hazardous substances in the production of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). Another recent Directive lays down tough limits on emission levels from incinerators. The Union 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. The EU’s laws governing waste disposal also require more recycling of paper and plastic each year, and generally prohibit dumping in landfills, while incineration is now heavily taxed in most European countries (8). Local authorities are under increasing pressure to collect materials separately because of the EU Landfill Directive. This burden has been passed on to citizens, who are now required to sort a range of materials individually. Having to sort rubbish into numerous bins (up to 7) often frustrates taxpayers, even if they want to recycle. It places needless pressure on households and doesn’t encourage recycling in future. The regulations also prohibit exporting waste to poorer parts of the world, unless the receiving country accepts that type of waste and it is received by a certified recycler.

The European guidelines ban the export of certain hazardous materials and so-called “problematic” waste, defined as waste that is not amenable to recycling and so would be harmful to the environment at its destination, for example, waste that is soggy or mixed household garbage. The European laws generally follow the guidelines of the 1992 Basel Convention, the treaty that regulates dangerous exports of waste, and a proposed 1998 amendment (9). Unfortunately the United States of America was one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention; much of the trash trade banned by Europe is still legal in the US, where current laws focus on only the most hazardous waste.

Nevertheless some types of waste exports may be environmentally sound. If products and packaging used in Europe are manufactured in Asia it may make sense to ship them back for recycling. The waste trade, legal and illegal, is partly propelled by the fact that fast-growing economies like China and India need raw materials. The day we will see the value in litter will be the day nothing goes to waste. Recycled materials are cheaper than virgin ones; they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the dependence on imports. And thus the primary objective is to couple waste to money. Seeing waste as a resource may be a powerful antidote to being submerged in rubbish in the coming decades.

Remarkably, a Life Cycle Assessment by the UK’s Environment Agency has shown that plastic carrier bags are the most environmentally sustainable option for carrying goods and protecting them from contamination. Replacing all plastic by organic products would put more stress on food production due to the spatial competition with edible crops. Transport costs and oil consumption would equally rise and have direct impacts on CO2 production. So instead of completely banning a product with clear pros and cons we should target the negative points and reduce, reuse and recycle single-use disposable products and packaging that often end up as waste. In order to do so we will need to reconsider the value we give to waste and exploit it as a resource instead of a disposable end-product.