Uneven playing field for landfill in Europe

In 2009 the EU Landfill Directive was ten years old, but there is no reason for celebration. Several member states have been warned by the EU for not abiding by its requirements. In fact, there are still thousands of illegal landfills in Europe and more than forty per cent of all household waste ends up in a landfill. The Netherlands performs well, but the differences between member states are huge.

Read more

Europe ‘celebrates’ ten years of the Landfill Directive

Uneven playing field for landfill in Europe

The EU Landfill Directive is ten years old, but there is no reason for a celebration. Several member states have been reprimanded by the EU, there are still thousands of illegal landfills in Europe, and more than forty per cent of all household waste ends up in a landfill. The Netherlands performs well, but the differences between member states are huge.

By Han van de Wiel

Under the EU Landfill Directive, which came into force ten years ago, the member states had to comply with a set of strict regulations by 16 July 2009 at the latest. This meant halving the amount of biodegradable household waste going to landfill, having a properly functioning technical infrastructure in place, and good management of landfill sites, with the necessary licences, monitoring, control and reporting. Member states that landfilled more than 80 per cent of their municipal waste in 1995 had the option of postponing attainment of these targets to 2013.

Nevertheless, implementation of the directive leaves much to be desired. No other environmental issue has led to so many notices of default and legal proceedings as the European waste policy, says José-Jorge Diaz, top civil servant at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment. ‘In recent years we have had to serve many formal notices of default for failure to transpose the Landfill Directive into national legislation or for incomplete implementation in national legislation. Many member states, including France, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain, remain in default. Legal action is being taken against Spain, France, Greece and Italy at the European Court of Justice for illegal landfill operations and mismanagement of existing landfill sites. According to Diaz, several member states discovered too late that their old landfill sites did not comply with all the latest requirements. ‘This means that they have to establish new landfill sites, which provokes much public resistance and legal wrangling, because no one wants a landfill site next door. Also, countries cannot simply close down their landfills. Landfilling less waste means more prevention and setting up other ways to treat waste; it implies the need for a national waste plan.’

Highest echelons

The Netherlands can hand over some impressive statistics. The number of landfill sites has been reduced from 90 in 1991 to 24 in 2007, and just two per cent of all Dutch household waste is landfilled. ‘We are in the highest echelons,’ says Heijo Scharff of Afvalzorg. ‘In contrast to other countries that are doing well, we employ stringent financial instruments, such as a landfill tax of 90 euros per tonne. Denmark and Sweden, which are also performing well, have lower rates of landfill tax. Germany has introduced a total landfill ban and has no landfill tax. The successful reduction in landfill volumes achieved in these countries is due mainly to initiatives by public sector dominated companies. From about 1980 these first upgraded their landfill sites and then invested heavily in incinerators and composting plants.’

Scharff goes on to put the successful Dutch waste policy into perspective. ‘You have lies, damned lies and statistics. There is no European agreement on the definitions of landfill waste, biodegradable waste and recycling.’ As a result, what is considered to be as a form of recovery in one member state may not be considered to be environmentally sound treatment in another, and therefore classified as landfill.


With the exception of Estonia – which landfills more than half of all its household waste – almost all the new EU member states landfill three-quarters or more of their household waste. In the 1990s Estonia had about 350 operational municipal landfill sites. ‘A legacy of the Russian era,’ says Peeter Eek of the Estonian environment ministry. ‘They were free and conveniently located dumps, and subject to no environmental controls whatsoever. Of these 350 municipal landfills there were just five left in 2009.’ A remarkable achievement, which according to Eek is partly due to the fact that the Landfill Directive was not ‘narrowly’ interpreted. ‘The directive actually requires changing the whole waste management system.’ In 1990 Estonia introduced a landfill tax, paid by the operators of the landfill sites. Three-quarters of the revenue goes to the local authorities with landfill sites, which have to invest the money in making improvements to the waste management infrastructure. Until 2005 this tax did not amount to much, about ten cents per tonne of waste, but now the price has risen to 10 euros per tonne. The closure of the landfills was partly funded from this tax revenue. ‘The tax will be progressively increased in the coming years, making recycling a more attractive option,’ says Eek.


The large differences in waste management practices, the fact that many countries have a lot of ground to make up, and the continued existence of thousands of illegal landfills all contribute to an alarmingly uneven playing field across Europe. This can lead to the ‘leakage’ of waste from the proper channels. It is no use setting tighter standards, because many countries cannot even meet the current targets. How is the European Commission going to deal with member states that do not comply with the rules? Diaz: ‘The EU can start lengthy proceedings to prompt member states to comply with the legislation. So far such default proceedings have had little effect and we are still waiting for the successful conclusion of these actions. We are still pressing.’ In the final resort, the European Commission can take a country to the European Court of Justice. This can result in a fine, but it seldom goes that far. ‘This is symptomatic of the heavy machinery which then swings into action,’ says Diaz. ‘Member states can pull out all the stops to avoid being fined. It is therefore not a realistic option.’

He expects more from good consultation with the member states. DG Environment has held Awareness Raising Events with all concerned in various member states to exchange information and find cooperative solutions. In the light of this, Diaz also sees the possibility of establishing a European Waste Agency. ‘This should not be just a ghastly enforcement agency, but a bridge between the Commission and the member states, and it should help countries to comply with the directive.’ Diaz is not unsympathetic to the idea of incinerating British landfill waste in the Netherlands, which has an overcapacity for the thermal treatment of waste. Diaz: ‘I believe that this is possible under the current legislation, although it is not a desirable trend. The EU Waste Shipment Regulation does not invoke the proximity principle for nothing. However, the Netherlands could temporarily take the burden of this waste from British shoulders.’

Diaz will be examining the implementation of the directive by the member states in more detail. ‘We estimate that there are still shortcomings and so we are studying the situation in all the member states. We have sent letters requesting information about the current situation. Over the course of the next year we hope to obtain a complete picture and will take appropriate action.’


Between 1995 and 2007 the percentage of municipal waste that was landfilled fell from 62 per cent to 42 per cent. There are big difference between member states. The worst performer is Malta, with a landfill percentage of 93 per cent. Cyprus, Lithuania and Latvia are hovering around the 90 per cent mark. The Netherlands is among the top performers in Europe. With 2 per cent landfill it holds second place after Germany, followed by Sweden and Belgium, both on 3 per cent. The top six in particular have achieved considerable reductions over the last ten years. In a few countries, such as Slovakia and Portugal, the percentage has not fallen since 1995, and has even increased. The ‘old’ EU member Greece is a standout underachiever, at 84 per cent in 2007.

Source: European Environment Agency, 2009

Jorge Diaz Del Castillo (European Commission):"Many member states are in default."
Heijo Scharff (Afvalzorg):"We employ stringent financial instruments, such as a landfill tax of 90 euros per tonne."

Vision DWMA

The Dutch Waste Management Association argues for amending the annexes to the Landfill Directive in a way that will ensure the European landfill sector can make the maximum possible contribution to reducing CO2 emissions and employ best available techniques for optimal environmental protection based on the safety approach. In particular, the DWMA calls for the following:

  • Draw up landfill gas emission limit values and implement the best available techniques for minimising landfill gas emissions
  • Establish clear and unambiguous objectives for aftercare measures and for the ending of the aftercare period that are consistent with the levels of emissions considered acceptable for landfills for inert waste
  • Set clear requirements for capping systems, with standards comparable with those for aftercare

Please find here position paper.