Raymond Gradus

At the same time that Greece Prime Minister was visiting, European Parliament voted in favour of twelve pages of regulation with as goal a zero waste programme for Europe. Most importantly, households would be forced to recycle 70 per cent of their rubbish. Fines could be levied on those communities which fail to do so. It is our opinion that European politicians did ignore over-whelming evidence pointing out that such an EU target of household recycling is unattainable and socially sub-optimal.


Even for the Netherlands which always has been a global leader in waste reduction efforts such a goal is unattainable. According to the latest empirical evidence from Eurostat, the Dutch recycling rates, at approximately 50%, is far above the EU and UK average of 43%. Only three out of twenty-eight countries (i.e. Germany, Belgium and Austria) are above the Dutch recycling rate. In the past decade it was the policy of the Dutch administration to increase recycling rates. Despite heavy policy efforts, a separate (curbside) collection of paper, glass, plastics and compostable waste, a landfill ban and tax, an incineration tax and the introduction of unit-based pricing in many municipalities the recycling rate dropped even from 50% in 1998 to 48% in 2012. Moreover, scientific evidence shows that the effectiveness of further policy measures as increasing curbside collection of recyclables (and decreasing the frequency of unsorted waste collection) or the use of special containers is neglectable or small.


Furthermore, reaching such a target will have adverse effect such as large administrative costs, discouraging home composting, illegal dumping or not pricing compostable waste. In addition, we also show that cultural aspects play an important role in recycling behaviour as well. Therefore, this target is (easily) assessable for some municipalities, especially those in rural areas with large gardens, as for cities with many apartments and a large ethnic population it is not. Germany but also Austria, which have less population density and more rural areas, are therefore better placed to reach such a target.


According to the report written by Sirpa Pietikäinen, a member of European People Party (EPP) for Finland, waste is ‘the root cause of various environmental hazards, such as climate change.’ However, this is not based on evidence either. For example, if an average household separates 60 years and therefore recycle plastics, the savings in CO2 emissions is comparable with one way air-trip from Amsterdam to Los Angeles. Also cost-benefit analyses including all external costs show that average social costs are minimised with recycling rates well below mandated levels in Europe and Japan. Some even shows that the mandated 20% recycling rate in Japan is higher than the socially optimal rate (10%).


In February, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans proclaimed to skip this recycling target in his deregulation plan. Timmermans wants to have less and better rules, more focused on the internal market. In this minimalistic approach there should be room for a better targeted ETS system –also decided in that week- but not for this bureaucratic recycling target, which destroys welfare and growth as all evidence shows. It is pity that European Parliament based on lobby of environmental groups and related industry goes another way and did not take time to investigate the negative effects of this recycling regulation. However, several politicians and especially the UK’s Conservative MEPs were extremely critical and we strongly believe that David Cameron should do the same, if the Council has to decide for new, higher recycling targets, probably later this year.

(Jointly with Elbert Dijkgraaf of Erasmus University Rotterdam)

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