The waste hierarchy

Sorry to break it to you, but being a keen recycler isn’t the best thing you can do for the environment. In fact, it comes surprisingly far down the waste hierarchy – the list of priorities for cutting down on waste.

There are various different versions of the waste hierarchy but we’ve opted for a 6-level pyramid to keep things simple while hopefully not leaving out anything important. Here goes…

the waste hierarchy pyramid

Reducing

The top way you can reduce waste is, of course, by reducing how much stuff you buy in the first place. Hardly rocket science, eh? It's quite simply a case of buying fewer products in the first place and buying products with less packaging.

At home, think about whether you really need 5 different kinds of moisturiser or all those unhealthy crisps that come in non-recyclable bags. Cutting down would really reduce the amount of packaging flooding into your home. When you’re on the go it’s all about simple things like bringing your own bags to the shops and refusing plastic straws in the pub. The list goes on. Have a look at the plastic and other waste in your life and see whether you could change your habits and reduce your intake.

Reusing

Is there something you no longer need that’s still in good working order? Or is there something you’d like to buy that someone else might be throwing out? Either way, this is where charity shops and websites such as Freecycle really come into their own. A lot of this stuff would otherwise end up in recycling – requiring energy to turn it into something new – or in landfill where it will probably still be sitting in hundreds of years’ time. At this level of the waste hierarchy, we’re challenging our throwaway culture and the idea of everything we buy having to be brand new.

plastic carrier bags

Plastic bags: reduce, reuse and recycle

Repairing

Most of us have probably done the odd household repair with varying degrees of inventiveness and success. But if your own handiwork just isn’t good enough, take your broken item along to your local repair cafe. When you arrive, you’ll be paired up with a volunteer with the right skills to fix whatever it is you’ve brought along. Most repair cafes are free and simply ask for a small donation to cover their costs.

Recycling

Level 4 on our hierarchy and we’ve finally got to recycling! Are you surprised how far down the list it comes?

Recycling is all about turning waste products into new items (you can read more about what happens to your household recycling in our blog post). It comes after reducing, reusing and repairing because producing new products from waste takes a lot of energy, and often the recycled products are of worse quality than the original. Take plastic: it can actually only be recycled once or twice, each time turning into something of lower value.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop recycling – the alternative would be for that waste to end up in landfill. Instead, try to work your way up the hierarchy and reduce, reuse or repair before you need to recycle.

anti-landfill bin

None of the waste put into this bin goes to landfill.

Recovery

Recovery is also known as “waste for energy”. The clue is in the name. Waste is transformed into energy through a range of processes including incineration (burning waste to create electricity), anaerobic digestion (microorganisms break down food and other organic waste to produce biogas) and landfill gas recovery (collecting the methane given off by landfill). Recovery is right near the bottom of the hierarchy because, once the materials have been turned into energy, they’re gone and can’t be used again. And although recovery generally diverts rubbish away from landfill, there are other problems to deal with such as capturing any harmful emissions and disposing of the toxic ash left over from incineration.

Disposal

This level of the waste hierarchy refers to landfilling or incinerating rubbish without recovering the energy (we did a blog on landfill waste here). It’s costly, wasteful and not sustainable. Here in the UK we’re already rapidly running out of landfill space, and that’s just the situation in a country that manages its landfill sites fairly responsibly. Elsewhere in the world, rubbish is left untreated, harmful gases are not contained and toxins are allowed to seep into the groundwater. Needless to say, waste disposal is rubbish.

So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to have a think about the waste you generate and see whether you can work your way up the hierarchy. There’s so much information out there and there are so many alternative products that, in many ways, the biggest challenge is adapting your attitude and habits. But if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re feeling pretty motivated to give it a go…