International Day of Zero Waste: Europe needs a social and cultural transformation

EPSU Waste management in Europe report March 2023

(30 March 2023) The transition towards a circular economy is a flagship policy of the EU’s Green Deal – but it cannot be achieved without quality jobs based on collective bargaining.

The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) launched a new report examining recent trends in waste management in Europe to mark the first ever International Day of Zero Waste. Written by Vera Weghmann (Public Service International Research Unit, University of Greenwich), the report provides a critical assessment of the optimistic claims that the EU’s circular economy policies will create new jobs as well as an analysis of waste management ownership trends.

The European Commission’s 2020 ‘New Circular Economy Action Plan’ mentions workers once, only to mention the assumed job creation that comes if workers acquire the necessary skills. The health and safety risks faced by waste management workers are not considered despite research showing that jobs in the recycling sector are badly paid and labour intensive. The EU’s circular economy policy similarly fails to mention informal workers despite official circular economy mechanisms – such as Deposit Refund Schemes (DRS) – relying on informal work.

EPSU’s new report calls on Europe to take action to increase waste avoidance. In theory, the circular economy should prioritise waste avoidance and maintaining products, materials and resources within the product cycle for as long as possible. In practice, the EU’s Circular Economy Strategy places ‘recycle’ ahead of ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’, thereby potentially facilitating the generation of even more waste. A social and cultural transformation is needed to reduce waste – yet such a transformation directly contradicts the EU’s economic growth model. There is also a danger that overcapacity in Europe’s waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration may act as an incentive to maintain rather than reduce waste supply.

The examination of public and private ownership of waste management shows that some countries are moving towards publicly run waste collection, driven by cost savings and environmental concerns. However, there is increasing private ownership in WtE, with many corporate players increasing their activities in this field. Research shows that private ownership of WtE “generally leads to inefficiencies” and can hamper efforts to increase waste prevention and recycling.

The new report follows two earlier EPSU publications on waste management in Europe, ‘Good Jobs in the Circular Economy? Waste Management in Europe’ (2018) and ‘Safe Jobs in the Circular Economy? Health and Safety in Waste and Wastewater Management’ (2020).

Waste Management in Europe, EPSU Report March 2023