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Trends in materials consumption and waste generation

The Environmental Performance Reviews of the 11 focus countries as well as recent OECD data show that most OECD countries have experienced improvements in material productivity. Among the focus countries, material productivity increased significantly in Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary between 2008 and 2015 and more moderately (close to 10%) in countries such as Japan, Korea and the Netherlands. The Environmental Performance Reviews do not provide a clear indication of the factors behind this trend: these may include rising economic productivity together with shifts in economic structure. Moreover, the level in material productivity varies greatly across OECD countries, as does their generation of total primary waste.

Most OECD countries have seen reductions in the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated per capita, with many countries decoupling economic growth from the generation of MSW. MSW generation per capita decreased by 6% on average between 2000 and 2015 in the OECD. In some cases, the Environmental Performance Reviews of the focus countries attributed these shifts to specific policy actions (Korea, Netherlands). In parallel, many OECD countries have increased the level of MSW recycling and recovery. In 2015, several countries, including Japan, Netherlands, Norway and Estonia, had largely eliminated landfilling, replaced by incineration with energy recovery and recycling. In the OECD, 55% of MSW was recovered on average thanks to recycling and composting (35%) and incineration with energy recovery (20%). This trend appears to be linked to policy actions highlighted in the Environmental Performance Reviews such as promotion of investment in new facilities. For other key waste streams, however, a broad set of data are not available to show medium-term, cross-country trends.

Institutional and policy frameworks

Nearly all the focus countries reviewed had established a comprehensive legal framework for waste management, together with a process for the development of regular national waste plans that set out policy objectives and targets, identify actions to meet them and set out a process for monitoring implementation (some countries also developed waste plans at sub-national level).

Many of the focus countries demonstrated commitment to circular economy objectives. However, the Environmental Performance Reviews found that appropriate institutional arrangements and supporting measures to support the transition to a circular economy were often missing and called for co-ordination among a broad range of government and private sector actors to ensure broad-based action across policy areas and stages of the life cycle.

The Environmental Performance Reviews reviewed the management of MSW. The Reviews found strong use of competitive tendering for MSW collection; growing use of kerbside collection to support objectives for greater recycling levels; and a need to ensure capacity in local government, which is often responsible for MSW management. Other waste streams were considered in depth when prominent in the review country, and sufficient cases are not available to draw cross-country lessons.

Policy instruments

OECD countries have put in place a range of policy instruments for waste management. A key factor in their success is ensuring an effective mix appropriate to the policy challenges.

The focus countries have established regulatory instruments that set rules to govern priority waste streams, require authorisation for treatment facilities and set standards for their operation according to best available techniques. In addition, several countries have introduced landfills bans to promote recycling and recovery. The Environmental Performance Reviews show that OECD countries have used economic instruments such as landfill and incineration taxes, which can promote recycling and reduce landfilling. Full cost recovery for MSW services is in place in a few OECD countries but remains to be addressed in others.

All 11 focus countries have established extended producer responsibility (EPR) for key waste streams such as packaging waste, and the Environmental Performance Reviews highlight their successes in terms of strengthening recycling levels, but also noted challenges in their governance: the latter can include competition issues, achieving full cost recovery through producer fees, gaps in enforcement and in data, and free rider problems. These issues are addressed in OECD’s 2016 guidance on EPR.

Several OECD countries have used green public purchasing to promote the use of recycled paper and other products; a further step is to employ this tool to support the circular economy, for example requiring durable goods to be repairable and recyclable. Public awareness supports waste management goals by changing behaviours; in several countries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have played an important role in organising clean-up campaigns.

Effective data systems are needed for policy development, implementation and evaluation: several Environmental Performance Reviews identified a need to collect more detailed and higher quality data to support waste policy. In some countries, these issues have concerned specific waste streams, such as construction and demolition waste. The Environmental Performance Reviews also highlighted that attaining circular economy objectives will require new data to track how materials are used in economies as well as their international flows. The OECD Council Recommendations on Material Flows and Resource Productivity (2004 and 2008) underline the importance of accurate data in these areas.

The Environmental Performance Reviews highlighted the need for better enforcement across the focus countries: key steps include ensuring co-ordination among enforcement bodies, establishing compliance promotion programmes and employing risk-based approaches to target inspections.

Investment and financing

The Environmental Performance Reviews found that OECD countries have mobilised both government and private financing for investment: for many of the focus countries, the level of investment in waste management has increased since 2000. The level of investments for waste management varies significantly across OECD countries– from under USD 50 per capita to over USD 200 per capita in focus countries like Estonia, Korea, Slovenia and Netherlands according to 2012 data. Public financing, including via dedicated environmental funds, has played a key role in supporting waste investments in particular in EU countries. At the same time, several Environmental Performance Reviews found examples of overcapacity in areas such as incineration and mechanical biological treatment (MBT), or risks that investments could lead to overcapacity: they called on countries to calibrate their planning and policy mixes to avoid this outcome.

The Environmental Performance Reviews found that the clean-up of contaminated sites remains a common challenge in the focus countries. Legal frameworks establishing clear liability for past contamination are a necessary step, along with public funds for remediation of abandoned sites. Identifying contaminated sites and setting risk-based priorities for clean-up are among the good practices found.

International co-operation

The Environmental Performance Reviews show that many focus countries have extensive trade in both hazardous and non-hazardous waste streams. Nearly all OECD countries have ratified the Basel Convention, and many have subscribed to its Ban Amendment. Few, however, have signed and ratified its Liability Protocol. Another international dimension highlighted in the Reviews has been technical assistance to share knowledge on waste and circular economy policies with non-OECD countries such as Japan’s support for the 3Rs approach in Asia.


This work is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

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Executive summary