4 minute read 28 Jan 2021
Mother and child help picking up trash at park

Why waste management can accelerate circular economy in Europe

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.

4 minute read 28 Jan 2021

Effective waste management can be the next cornerstone of the EU Green Deal agenda.

In brief
  • EY teams have identified sustainable means to effective waste management with a vision aligned with EU’s Green Deal agenda.
  • Governments are encouraged to take an integrated approach to waste management, both at municipal and household levels for optimum results.

Separate waste collection is key to the European Green Deal, Europe’s new agenda for sustainable growth. In fact, the European Commission’s recently published Circular Economy Action Plan aims to encourage and harmonize separate waste collection systems across Member States. 

Today, Europe’s transition to a circular economy – where products and materials are converted into new products and materials at the end of their life – is being hindered by both the limited quantity and the issues with the quality of our recyclables. Products are not always designed to be recyclable, people do not sort their waste perfectly and many materials are difficult to separate in a sorting plant once they are mixed with other waste streams, for example, bio-waste mixed with paper. Separate waste collections will help to drive the transition to circular because they can help to upgrade the quantity and quality of recyclables.

At the request of the Commission, we have written a report that supports Member States with transposing the new Waste Framework directive into national and subnational legislation: guidance for separate collection of municipal waste. As well as interpreting the relevant legal requirements for separate waste collection, the report explores where exceptions can be made. It also showcases some examples of best practice for the separate collection of specific waste streams, including bio-waste, plastics, textiles and hazardous waste.

We believe that there are three principal takeaways from the report:

  1. Separate waste management collection is the best way to achieve more, and higher-quality, recyclables. While sorting technology is improving, more effective sorting by households will deliver higher-quality recyclables for lower financial investment compared with machines.
  2. Governments and municipal authorities must take an integrated approach to separate collections. The four factors that underpin success are: economic incentives, customized facilities, engaging communication and legal enforcement. People need incentives to collect waste in the right way and the facilities to do so. They should also receive communication that explains why separate waste collection is important. If they fail to comply, they should face penalties. 
  3. The European Waste Framework Directive broadens the scope of materials to be collected separately. Significantly, our study focuses on bio-waste, plastics and textiles, which will be subject to new obligations over the coming years.

Our report helps to accelerate the Green Deal and the circular economy plans of the European Commission by focusing on more efficient waste collection. It also explains the actions Member States should take to comply with the new legislation and ensure that their households and municipalities are also compliant. 

Separate waste collection does not necessarily cost more than combined waste collection. What it does require, however, is for households and municipalities to be both disciplined and well organized. Since Member States are at different stages of the sustainable waste management journey, some will have to make greater changes than others when it comes to implementing the new legal regulations.

Separate waste collection is the foundation of a more sustainable society because it will lead to circular resources as well as the development of more – and higher quality – recycled materials. Essentially, the circular economy is a loop that goes from production, to consumption, to waste management and back to consumption again. As households sort more, the quality of recycled materials will increase and producers will be more likely to integrate them into their products. This, in turn, will trigger the comprehensive upgrade of recycled products, meaning that more materials are recycled throughout the loop. 

The European Union is already recognized as a leader in waste management around the world. The revised Water Framework Directive and the Circular Economy Action Plan are lifting the bar even higher. EU citizens will have both the obligation and the opportunity to sort more of their recyclables. At the same time, they will have the satisfaction of knowing they are improving waste management practices and supporting the transition to a circular economy. Through their actions, they will have a positive environmental impact and help to build a more sustainable future for all.

Lead Author: Edward Sims, Senior Manager at EY – Leader of EY’s Global Centre of Excellence on the Circular Economy
Co-Author: Sophie Chirez – Leader, EY Belgium Climate Change and Sustainability Team


Waste management can boost the development of recyclable and sustainable alternatives.

About this article

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.