Mike Stinavage | Fundació ENT


Bio-waste can teach us—if we are willing to learn—an awful lot. From its material composition to its origin, location, quality, and disposal, bio-waste and its management is one of the many magnifying glasses on society.

To learn from and advance bio-waste and its management, however, requires one largely undervalued prerequisite.

Without proper understanding and leveraging of multi-leveled governance, waste management is an amorphous blob subjected to oversimplified and unsynchronized solutions. Federalism and the devolution of power, to that extent, are crucial. And by approaching waste policy through federalism, the EU achieves exactly what the USA hasn’t.

In 1964, American political scientist William Riker theorized federalism as a rational bargain between central leadership and peripheral governments who “come together for the purpose of creating a larger territory so as better to facilitate the levying of taxes and the raising of armies.”

Not all federal systems, however, are made equally. In order to balance ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences, political scientist Alfred Stepan (1999) elaborates on the Rikerian bargain and details variation and asymmetry in federalism. Federalism, as Stepan explains, is a mechanism in which the state “brings together,” “holds together,” or “puts together” regions.

Describing democratic federations in this category, Stepan writes: “The only way to hold their countries together in a democracy would be to devolve power constitutionally and turn their threatened polities into federations.” These nuances in federalism help to explain Europe’s regional variation in capacity and willingness to take on the workload of sustainable waste management.

Across the world, waste management is implemented by local governments, which, in many cases, relies on policy measures on upper levels of government for regulations and guidelines.

“If citizens cannot clearly distinguish spheres of authority across levels of government, they may become more vulnerable to politicians’ strategies of blaming other levels of government to excuse or justify bad policy outcomes,” says Spanish political scientist Sandra León.

The EU is trailblazing a multi-leveled waste policy response in multiple cross-cutting policy areas such as agriculture, soil health, energy, emissions, and pollution. The EU’s 2008 Waste Framework Directive, as well as its upcoming revision, has been transposed by the majority of Member States. In the USA, on the other hand, there’s an absence of upper-level policy frameworks and guidelines that would assist municipalities in realigning incentives and increasing their bio-waste collection and treatment capacity.

Yet, while European policies make their way into multi-layered network of governance, advancements should not always be assumed. In the EU, there is a slow evolution of average recycling rates and limited difference, for example, between the list of at risk Member States in the European Commission’s 1st and 2nd Early Warning Reports, which track MS progress towards the fulfillment of waste policy objectives. All 14 Member States listed in the 1st report were also listed in the 2nd, alongside 4 additional countries.

Although the EU has the capacity to recognize issues, its ability to resolve them is another question. Without effective mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement of the bio-waste separate collection mandate scheduled for 2024, the EU runs the risk of setting laws in a lackadaisical opt-in fashion, which doesn’t set a good legal precedent.

Europe must continue to ground policy in every step of the federal ladder. The EU must take a more active role in identifying European bio-waste best practices and setting rigorous waste policy objectives. For European policies to reach the municipality, national governments must readily adopt and galvanize drivers to promote best practices. The goal is to strategically realign incentives and know-how for regional and local governments to implement quality bio-waste collection and treatment.

On the other side of the pond, NYC will soon join a league of progressive cities—San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, etc.—with its commitment to bio-waste management. But until the US sets multi-leveled federal bio-waste policy like the EU, it will be a country of hodge-podge variation and siloed results. The US will miss the opportunity to bring, hold, or even put states together under the federal authority.


León, S. (2010), “Who is responsible for what? Clarity of responsibilities in multi-level states: The case of Spain,” European Journal of Political Research

Stepan, A. (1999), “Federalism and democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, no. 4: 19-34.

Riker, W. (1955), “The Senate and American Federalism,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 49, no. 2: 452-469.