Challenged by a spate of national laws limiting landfilling, Europe is working on ways to trim back the contents of its trash cans.
With all the brouhaha about packaging recycling, a false impression may be conveyed that Europe is primarily focused on packaging waste reduction. True, the Pack-aging Directive requires European Union (EU) member states to recycle at least 25 percent of all packaging and containers by 2001, but many other used products also are getting a workout.
Within the municipal waste stream, contributing approximately 3 percent to western Europe's total solid waste, the other products now on a "diet" include food wastes, yard trimmings, tires, appliances, textiles, batteries and paper from sources other than packaging.
Policies favoring backyard composting, source-separated collection and central processing of food, vegetable and garden wastes are spreading throughout Europe. Aerobic composting systems, as well as anaerobic technologies (which convert organic material into biogas), are in use.
Efforts to develop new compost standards and promote markets are spearheaded by the Brussels-based Organic Reclamation & Composting Association. A forerunner in the recovery of household organic wastes, the Netherlands has made source-separated collection standard practice.
Among the EU priority waste streams are tires and electrical/ electronic wastes. An estimated 1.5 million metric tons of tires are scrapped each year in the EU. Methods to alleviate this problem include Denmark's voluntary tire recovery program, begun in 1994, which reclaims tires for crumb rubber production or energy generation. Also, a tire-to-energy plant in Wolverhampton, England, operating since November 1993, can process 10 million scrap tires a year. And in Germany, bicycle shops collect old tires in containers on the premises.
Approximately 1.5 million metric tons of electrical and electronic waste is generated annually in Germany, and about 20,000 metric tons of electronic scrap is generated in Switzerland. In anticipation of producer responsibility laws, appliance manufacturers are beginning to redesign their goods for improved recyclability and to organize takeback systems.
Reuse and recycling textiles, which typically amount to 3 to 5 percent of the mixed household waste in western Europe, is well established. Households in the United Kingdom, for instance, generate up to one million metric tons of textile wastes each year - about 25 percent of which is recycled. In Germany, an average of 23 kilograms of textiles per person per year reportedly is consumed; 400,000 metric tons are discarded, and approximately 200,000 metric tons are recovered.
A 1993 directive targets household and automobile batteries. It not only requires EU member states to implement effective national collection programs and marking systems, but also prohibits some batteries containing mercury levels higher than permitted. Austria has the highest battery recovery rate in Europe, nearly 60 percent, but lacks recycling facilities.
Recovered paper content in paper produced in 1993 was almost 55 percent in EU countries, where more than 500 of roughly 1,200 paper mills are permitted to use secondary feedstock. France, for example, used 3.8 million metric tons of recovered paper as feedstock in 1993, and Germany used 7 million, compared with the 5.2 million metric tons used in China, 14.8 million metric tons used in Japan and 27.2 million metric tons used in the United States (see chart).
In Switzerland, a firm has developed a product made predominantly from recovered paper: biodegradable kitty litter. Pro-duct demand may be substantial, since several hundred thousand Swiss cat owners purchased around 35,000 metric tons of kitty litter in 1991. Conventional kitty litter cannot be discarded in backyards and also is problematic for incinerators and sewer systems.
The new litter's feedstock is prepared by removing undesirable materials, including staples. After, it's pulped and mixed with substances such as silicates, it's granulated, dried and sieved. After disinfectants, deodorants, fragrance and dyes are added, the product then is packaged for distribution. The litter can be used in gardens and compost bins or burned, according to the company.
Assuming cats take to it, this product could be a heavy item cut from the menu fed to Swiss trash cans, thus helping continue Switzerland's downward trend in waste generation. In 1989, the annual per capita generation rate reached a high of 445 kilograms, but, by 1993, it had reverted to the 1985 rate of 400 kilograms.
With continued tightening of its waste belt, Europe's new trash diet may help overcome the landfill shortage.