The waste hierarchy helps us look at waste generation and waste management in a more sustainable and lower impact way.
In this guide, we explain more about what the waste hierarchy is, and how it might help us.
Summary – What Is The Waste Hierarchy?
In summary, the waste hierarchy is a pyramid of options/strategies that helps us minimise waste generation, or manage the waste we create in the best way.
It takes into account different waste related factors like waste minimisation, sustainability and resource depletion, environmental impact (and more).
A good waste management scheme for different countries, states and regions should implement or include principles of the waste hierarchy as part of their overall waste strategy.
From top (most desirable) to bottom (least desirable), the hierarchy usually looks like this:
- Reduce waste (or prevent it in the first instance)
- Re-Use waste
- Recycle waste (or recover it)
- Disposal of waste
Reducing waste is about preventing waste from entering the waste system altogether, or minimising it.
This happens at the manufacturing level mainly.
For example, a manufacturer may look at how they make their product, and identify opportunities to treat and re-use waste (such as wastewater), or may look at ways to use recycled material in their product, or may look at ways to distribute or transport their product using less packaging.
Having said that, reducing waste can also happen at the consumer level by simply buying less (and making better use of existing resources), or even something as simple as reducing the amount of food you waste per week.
Re-Use (& Repair) Waste
At the re-use stage, waste is already generated, but we look for ways to make use of that existing waste.
For example, consumers may look to buy or swap second hand clothes instead of throwing out old clothes and buying new ones.
Another example is repairing products. Businesses may set up a repair service, instead of producing items and products new and from raw materials.
Recycle (& Composting & Recovery Of) Waste
Recycling includes melting or breaking materials down and re-using them, recovering materials from existing waste (instead of using new/virgin materials), and even composting organic waste.
An example of this is recycling metals and aluminum, paper and cardboard, hard plastic, glass and so on from our homes, and from businesses
Recycling some types of batteries and e waste can also help us recover metals and other valuable resources instead of letting them go to landfill.
Incineration and capturing heat/gas energy, and also capturing energy from landfill methane and other gases is seen as a form of recycling.
Obviously in the case of composting, we can use compost as a fertilizer. Farmers can also look to make better use of animal manure a a fertilizer.
Dispose Of Waste
The last option is when the waste can’t be prevented/minimised, re-used/repaired or recycled.
Disposing of waste means that we send that waste to landfill.
Modern landfill technology is getting better, but there are still issues like leaching of harmful chemicals into soil and water (from the landfill waste), and air pollution and greenhouse gases produced from decomposing landfill matter to deal with.
Ideally, you want to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill to as low a number as possible.
An Asterisk About The Waste Hierarchy
- The waste hierarchy is good for a circular waste system, or for making maximum efficiency of the things we use
- But, there is also a feasibility and economic side to waste which has to be considered, and it may conflict with the hierarchy of the waste pyramid
- An example of this is recycling. Some materials are much better to recycle than others – such as metals like aluminum. Some other materials like soft plastics and glass might be more expensive to recycle than to make from new. Alkaline batteries are another product that are hard to recycle at a profit
- Recycling is also not always the most environmentally friendly way to manage some types of waste
- Apart from the above, there’s also certain products or waste that are unavoidable at the waste generation state, and they will end up in landfill or incineration regardless.
So, the waste hierarchy is a good overall strategy, but the waste that we generate and the reason we generate it almost needs a case by case individual life assessment of how we manage it i.e. each type of waste needs to be treated and dealt with separately based on the pros, cons and optimal waste management strategy it has in society