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What is waste?

  1. Introduction to waste
  2. Waste types
  3. Waste treatment

1. Introduction to waste

Waste includes all items that people no longer have any use for, which they either intend to get rid of or have already discarded. Additionally, wastes are such items which people are require to discard, for example by lay because of their hazardous properties. Many items can be considered as waste e.g., household rubbish, sewage sludge, wastes from manufacturing activities, packaging items, discarded cars, old televisions, garden waste, old paint containers etc. Thus all our daily activities can give rise to a large variety of different wastes arising from different sources.

Over 1.8 billion tonnes of waste are generated each year in Europe. This equals to 3.5 tonnes per person. This is mainly made up of waste coming from households, commercial activities (e.g., shops, restaurants, hospitals etc.), industry (e.g, pharmaceutical companies, clothes manufacturers etc.), agriculture (e.g., slurry), construction and demolition projects, mining and quarrying activities and from the generation of energy. With such vast quantities of waste being produced, it is of vital importance that it is managed in such a way that it does not cause any harm to either human health or to the environment.

There are a number of different options available for the treatment and management of waste including prevention, minimisation, re-use, recycling, energy recovery and disposal. Under EU policy, landfilling is seen as the last resort and should only be used when all the other options have been exhausted , i.e., only material that cannot be prevented, re-used, recycled or otherwise treated should be landfilled.

Further details on the different types of wastes which are produced and the various treatment options available can be found by clicking on the following links:

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Waste types

Municipal Waste (including Household and Commercial)

Source Municipal waste is generated by households, commercial activities and other sources whose activities are similar to those of households and commercial enterprises. It does not include other waste arising e.g., from mining, industrial or construction and demolition processes.

Content Municipal waste is made up to residual waste, bulky waste, secondary materials from separate collection (e.g., paper and glass), household hazardous waste, street sweepings and litter collections. It is made up of materials such as paper, cardboard, metals, textiles, organics (food and garden waste) and wood. Figure 1 highlights the typical composition of municipal waste. As can be seen, the largest fraction is paper and cardboard at 35% of the waste stream, followed by organic material at 25%.
Municipal waste pie chart
Quantity Municipal waste represents approximately 14% of all waste generated.


Management Routes Municipal waste has traditionally been landfilled and this remains the predominant management option in most countries. However, some countries have taken significant steps away from landfill. Alternatives offered include incineration (increasingly with recovery of energy), composting and recycling of glass, paper, metal, plastics and other materials.


Environmental Relevance There are numerous potential impacts associated with the landfilling of waste including the production of leachate and landfill gas, odours, flies, vermin and the use of land.


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Industrial waste (including manufacturing)
Source and content Manufacturing industry waste comprises many different waste streams arising from a wide range of industrial processes. Some of the largest waste generating industrial sectors in Western and Central Europe include the production of basic metals, food, beverage and tobacco products, wood and wood products and paper and paper products.
Quantity It has been estimated that over 33 million tonnes of industrial waste was generated in Europe in 1998. Waste from the manufacturing sector continues to rise, despite national and international declarations to reduce waste from manufacturing industry, to introduce cleaner technologies and other waste minimisation initiatives and to work towards manufacturing practices that are sustainable in the long term.
Environmental Relevance The manufacturing industry has a central role to play in the prevention and reduction of waste as the products that they manufacture today become the wastes of tomorrow. Manufacturers can achieve this by:
  • considering the impacts of their products throughout its life at the design stage of the product;
  • using manufacturing processes that minimise material and energy usage;
  • eliminating or reducing where possible the use of substances or materials hazardous to health or the environment; and
  • manufacturing products in such a way that they last longer and may be recycled or reused at the end-of-life stage.

EU and government policy across Europe is increasingly driven by the need to influence manufacturing practices in an effort to decrease the environmental impact of produces during their manufacture, use and end-of-life.

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Hazardous waste
Source Hazardous waste arises from a wide range of different sources including households, commercial activities and industry.

Quantity and content Hazardous waste represents approximately 1% of all waste generated in Europe. Wastes are classified as being hazardous depending on whether they exhibit particular characteristics. Further details can be found by clicking on the following link: Insert link to definitions section.

Management routes The main disposal route for hazardous waste is landfill, incineration and physical or chemical treatment. On the recovery side, a significant proportion of hazardous waste is recycled or burned as a fuel.

Environmental relevance Although hazardous waste represents only approximately 1% of all waste generated in Europe, it can present a potential risk to both human health and the environment. Hazardous waste is typically the subject of special legislation and requires special management arrangements to ensure that hazardous waste is kept separate from and treated differently to non-hazardous waste.

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Construction and Demolition Waste
Source Construction and demolition waste is made up of two individual components: construction waste and demolition waste. It arises from activities such as the construction of buildings and civil infrastructure, total or partial demolition of buildings and civil infrastructure, road planning and maintenance. In some countries even materials from land levelling are regarded as construction and demolition waste.

Quantity and content Construction and demolition waste makes up approximately 25% of all waste generated in the EU with a large proportion arising from the demolition and renovation of old buildings. It is made up of numerous materials including concrete, bricks, wood, glass, metals, plastic, solvents, asbestos and excavated soil, many of which can be recycled in one way or another.

Construction and Demolition Waste Chart
Management routes The main methods used to treat and dispose of construction and demolition waste include landfill, incineration and recycling with some countries obtaining recycling rates as high as 80%.
Environmental relevance Construction activity is seen as a key indicator of growth and prosperity in Western countries. However, construction and demolition waste instead of being a burden on society and the environment, can become a resource to be recycled and reused within the construction industry.

Construction and demolition waste has been identified as a priority waste stream by the European Union. This means that particular attention will be paid to policies and measures to ensure increased recycling of construction and demolition waste. Due to the very large volume of construction and demolition waste produced, it can use up valuable space in landfills. In addition, if not separated at source it can contain small amounts of hazardous waste. However, it also has a high resource value and the technology for the separation and recovery of construction and demolition waste is well established, readily accessible and in general inexpensive. Most importantly, there is a reuse market for aggregates derived from construction and demolition waste in roads, drainage and other construction projects.

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Mining Waste
Source Mining waste arises from prospecting, extraction, treatment and storage of minerals.


Quantity and content Mining and quarrying activities give rise to the single biggest waste stream at 29% of the total quantity of waste generated in EEA countries. It has been shown that approximately 50% of the material extracted during extraction and mining activities in Europe becomes waste. It is made up of topsoil, overburden, waste rock, waste from the processing of the ore body (tailings) which may also include process water, process chemicals and portions of the remaining materials.


Environmental relevance The two major concerns in relation to mining waste are the large volumes that are produced as well as the potential for hazardous substances to be present in the waste stream. Large areas of land are used for depositing mining waste and this activity has the potential to cause environmental pollution if not properly controlled. A number of recent cases of uncontrolled releases of mining waste to surface waters (rivers and lakes) have highlighted the risks of poor mining waste management. In response, the EU has proposed initiatives that are designed to improve mining waste management.


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Waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)
Source Waste electrical and electronic equipment (commonly referred to as WEEE) consists of end of life products and comprises of a range of electrical and electronic items such as:

Refrigerators, IT and telecommunication equipment, Freezers, Electrical and electronic tools, Washing machines, Medical equipment Toasters, Monitoring and control instruments, Hairdriers, Automatic dispensers, Televisions, etc.

Thus, sources are all users of electrical and electronic equipment from householders to all kinds of commercial and industrial activities.


Quantity and content WEEE is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the European Union and makes up approximately 4% of municipal waste.An estimate of the composition of WEEE arising is shown in Figure 4. As can be seen, iron and steel are the most common materials found in electrical and electronic equipment and account for almost half of the total weight of WEEE. Plastics are the second largest component by weight representing approximately 21% of WEEE. Non-ferrous metals including precious metals represent approximately 13% of the total weight of WEEE and glass around 5%. 


  Electrical Waste Chart
  Expected growth rates are between 3 and 5% each year. This means that in five years time, 16-28% more WEEE will be generated and in 12 years the amount is expected to double. This rapid growth rate is due to the fast pace of technological development, especially in information technology (IT) which have resulted in the more frequent replacement of electrical and electronic equipment by industry.


Management Routes At present, a large proportion of WEEE is disposed of in landfills or incineration plants, depending on local or national practices. In some countries and regions, products such as fridges and freezers are separately collected and sent to recycling plants for dismantling and recycling. 


Environmental relevance

WEEE has been identified as a priority waste stream by the European Commission due to its potentially hazardous nature, the consumption of resources in its manufacture and its expected growth rates. In response, the European Commission has prepared legislation in the form of the following two Directives:

  • A Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE); and
  • A Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

The European Commission is also preparing legislation in the form of the following draft Directive:

  • A Directive on the Environmental Impact of Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

The directives propose that manufacturers will become responsible for taking back and recycling electrical and electronic equipment. This will in turn provide industry with incentives to design electrical and electronic equipment in an environmentally more efficient way, taking waste management issues into consideration.

Further information
  • Report: Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (coming soon)
  • Waste definitions

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Biodegradable municipal Waste
Source Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) is waste from households and commercial activities that is capable of undergoing biological decomposition. Food waste and garden waste, paper and cardboard are all classified as biodegradable municipal waste.


Quantity Approximately 60% of municipal waste is biodegradable. In 1995, approximately 107 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste was produced in EU plus Norway of which 66 percent is consigned to landfill.


Management routes A range of options are used to treat BMW. Alternatives to landfill include composting, mechanical-biological pre-treatment recycling and incineration (with and without energy recovery). As can be seen from the figure below, those countries and regions such as Denmark, The Netherlands, Flanders and Austria, which have a low reliance on landfill, employ a mixture of incineration, composting and recycling to treat BMW.
  Municipal waste chart
Environmental relevance

Potential impacts associated with landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste include the production of leachate and landfill gas, odours, flies and vermin. In response to these concerns, the Landfill Directive (Council Directive 1999/31/EC), amongst other things, places targets for the reduction in the proportion of biodegradable municipal waste that may be consigned to landfill. By 2006 Member States are restricted to landfilling a maximum of 75% of the total amount by weight of BMW produced in 1995. This target increases to 50% in 2009 and 35% in 2016. To meet these targets, Member States are obliged to set up national strategies to reduce the quantity of biodegradable waste going to landfill.

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Packaging waste
Source Packaging is defined as any material which is used to contain, protect, handle, deliver and present goods. Items like glass bottles, plastic containers, aluminium cans, food wrappers, timber pallets and drums are all classified as packaging. Packaging waste can arise from a wide range of sources including supermarkets, retail outlets, manufacturing industries, households, hotels, hospitals, restaurants and transport companies.
Quantity Packaging waste represents up to 17% of the municipal waste stream. As it has a relatively short life, it soon becomes a waste that must be treated or disposed off.
Packaging waste picture
Management routes A number of different methods are used to manage packaging waste. These included reuse, recycling (mechanical, chemical and feedstock), composting, thermal treatment and landfill. In 1998, approximately 50 percent of packaging waste was recycled in 12 EU countries with an additional 9% reported as being recovered (i.e, waste to energy). The remaining 41 percent of packaging waste was landfilled.
Environmental relevance

Packaging and packaging waste can have a number of impacts on the environment. Some of these impacts can be associated with the extraction of the raw materials used for manufacturing the packaging itself, impacts associated with the manufacturing processes, the collection of packaging waste and its subsequent treatment or disposal. In addition packaging may contain some critical substances e.g., PVC and heavy metals which may pose a risk to the environment.

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End-of-Life Vehicles (ELVs) and Tyres
Source End-of-life vehicles are defined as cars that hold up to a maximum of eight passengers in addition to the driver, and trucks and lorries that are used to carry goods up to a maximum mass of 3.5 tonnes. Thus their sources range from households to commercial and industrial uses.

Quantity, content and management routes In the year 2000, 13.4 million cars were scrapped in the EU. This is projected to increase by 21% by 2015 to 17 million. Cars are composed of numerous different materials. Approximately 75% of the weight of a car is made up of steel and aluminium, most of which is recycled. Other materials present include lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, in addition to other dangerous substances including anti-freeze, brake fluid and oils that, if not properly managed, may cause significant environmental pollution. The remainder is composed of plastic which is recycled, incinerated or landfilled.
Junkyard picture
Environmental relevance

The EU introduced a directive on end of life vehicles (2000/53/EC) which had an implementation date of April 2002. The Directive's main focus is on waste prevention. It also contains provisions on recycling ELVs, producer responsibility, reduced use of hazardous substances and increased use of recycled materials in vehicle manufacture. Progressive targets are set out for ELV recycling. The Directive introduces provisions for the collection of all ELVs, with a requirement for ELVs to be transferred to authorised treatment facilities.

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Agricultural waste
Source Agricultural waste is composed of organic wastes (animal excreta in the form of slurries and farmyard manures, spent mushroom compost, soiled water and silage effluent) and waste such as plastic, scrap machinery, fencing, pesticides, waste oils and veterinary medicines.
Quantity No overall estimates are available on the quantity of agricultural waste produced in the EU. Ireland has estimated that in 1998 over 80% of national waste arising were from agricultural sources.
Management routes There are a number of methods used to treat agricultural waste. These include spreading the waste on land under strict conditions, anaerobic digestion and composting.
Environmental relevance

There are a number of potential environmental impacts associated with agricultural waste if it is not properly managed not least of which is the run-off of nutrients to surface waters which can cause over enrichment of the water body. Leaking and improper storage of agricultural waste can also pose a serious threat to the environment should the waste reach surface waters. In addition, farming activities can give rise to emissions of ammonia and methane which can cause acidification and contribute to greenhouse gases emissions.

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Waste treatment

Prevention and Minimisation
Waste Prevention and Minimisation

Prevention means eliminating or reducing the quantity of waste which is produced in the first place, thus reducing the quantity of waste which must be managed. Prevention can take the form of reducing the quantities of materials used in a process or reducing the quantity of harmful materials which may be contained in a product. Prevention can also include the reuse of products.

Prevention is the most desirable waste management option as it eliminates the need for handling, transporting, recycling or disposal of waste. It provides the highest level of environmental protection by optimising the use of resources and by removing a potential source of pollution.

Minimisation includes any process or activity that avoids, reduces or eliminates waste at its source or results in re-use or recycling. It can be difficult to draw a clear distinction between the terms "Prevention" and "Minimisation".

Waste prevention and minimisation measures can be applied at all stages in the life-cycle of a product including the production process, the marketing, distribution, or utilisation stages, up to discarding the product at the end-of life stage. 

By examining each stage in the life cycle of a product, it may be possible that the quantities of waste produced at each stage can be reduced. During the design stage of a product, consideration can be given to the types of materials to be used, the quantity of materials and the recyclability of the product once it reaches its end of life. The use of efficient processes in terms of energy and material requirements during the manufacture of a product are other important considerations. Consideration can also be given to minimising the packaging for the product.

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Re-use Re-use means the use of a product on more than one occasion, either for the same purpose or for a different purpose, without the need for reprocessing. Re-use avoids discarding a material to a waste stream when its initial use has concluded. It is preferable that a product be re-used in the same state e.g., returnable plastic pallets, using an empty glass jar for storing items and using second hand clothes.   Reuse is normally preferable to recycling as there isn't the same requirement for the material to have gone through a detailed treatment process thus helping to save on energy and material usage.

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Recycling involves the treatment or reprocessing of a discarded waste material to make it suitable for subsequent re-use either for its original form or for other purposes. It includes recycling of organic wastes but excludes energy recovery. Recycling benefits the environment by reducing the use of virgin materials. Many different materials can by recycled. Waste materials can either be recycled for use in products similar to their original use (e.g., paper recycling) or can be recycled into a product which is different that the original use (e.g., recycling plastic bottles into fleece jackets or using construction and demolition waste as road aggregate.

In the EU up to 13% of municipal waste is reycled.

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