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The Environment Impact of Waste Generation and Waste Management

The Member States of the European Union (EU) produce more than 2 billion tonnes of waste, including hazardous materials, every year. And this figure is rising steadily. The situation is even more alarming in the countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. The waste generated there accounts for nearly 4 billion tonnes (2009).

Waste management is a key concern for the environment and the sustainable management of natural resources. Most of the municipal and hazardous waste is disposed of into or onto land. There are many environmental drawbacks of landfill. Heavy metals and toxins are leaking into the surrounding groundwater and soil. The waste generates explosive and toxic gases.

There exist an unknown - but surely very high - number of illegal landfills, the environmental risks of which are hard to estimate. Incineration as an alternative disposal method to landfill produces toxins and heavy metals unless it uses expensive filters. Thus, the optimum solution is to prevent the production of waste and/or reintroduce it into the product cycle by recycling its components where there are ecologically and economically viable methods of doing so.

Accounting for the Waste

Policy-makers need sound waste statistics to assess and develop waste management policies. Data, however, remain a key challenge. Statistics on waste production, composition, transport and treatment are not collected in the same way or in the same detail across the UNECE countries. The lack of data on hazardous waste is of particular concern.

The countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia are facing serious data challenges. There are problems with data collection from enterprises and municipalities, e.g., data collection does not cover all economic sectors and estimates are needed for rural areas not served by the municipal waste collecting system. In general, obligations for reporting are legally in place but not often applied in practice.

Furthermore, different methodologies and classifications used at national level make it difficult to compare the UNECE countries. For example, according to the available data (see Figure 1), a country like Bulgaria, with a population of 8 million, produces more waste (11% of EU total) than Italy (7% of EU total) and almost as much waste as the United Kingdom (13% of EU total). The data also shows that the Russian Federation alone has generated 1.5 times more waste than the entire EU, while Kazakhstan has generated more waste than France, a country with four times greater population and nearly 15 times higher gross domestic product (GDP).

The Joint UNECE/Eurostat/EEA Workshop on Waste Statistics

To address methodological challenges, the UNECE Statistical Division organized jointly with Eurostat and the European Environment Agency a Workshop on Waste Statistics that was held in Geneva, Switzerland.

The workshop focused on how to compile and disseminate high-quality, harmonized and timely waste statistics in the countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. In particular, it discussed practical challenges and problems in producing statistical data, information and indicators on waste generation and waste management, including recovery and disposal of waste. The workshop was aimed at national experts involved in the production of waste statistics. Experts from international organizations and institutions were invited to share experience and broaden the exchange of knowledge and best practices. All documents for the workshop are available online at the UNECE website: www.unece.org/stats/documents/2012.04.environ.html

The area of waste statistics is relatively new and the UNECE work will continue to build expertise and strengthen the data collection and reporting systems, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia.

For further information, please contact Vania Etropolska at vania.etropolska@unece.org.

Figure 1: Total amount of waste generated in selected UNECE countries in descending order, 2008, in millions of tonnes

Russian Federation3,877
EU (27 countries)2,612
United Kingdom334
Bulgaria 286
Romania 189

Notes:  The countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia are highlighted in blue. Data for the Russian Federation excludes municipal waste. Data for Ukraine are for 2010.
Source: Eurostat and data provided to the UNECE Joint Task Force on Environmental Indicators.